A keeper? Yes.
New Orleans, 1834. A fine city, if you’re rich, white, and ruthless. Otherwise, not so much.
Benjamin January is almost broke (being a musician doesn’t pay very well, especially in summer when all the rich people leave the city), very black, and compassionate. He has only a few things going for him: Freedom, as long as he can prove it (he carries several carefully hidden sets of papers documenting his status as a free man with him wherever he goes). A good education that qualified him as both a classical musician and a doctor, thanks to the man who bought January’s mother to be his mistress and freed her and her children. Several good friends (though how much can January trust the white ones, his colleague the consumptive violinist Hannibal Sefton or the “Kaintuck” (Kentuckian) policeman Shaw?). His family, especially his married sister Olympe and her husband.
Now Olympe has been arrested and charged with selling poison to kill young Isaak Jumon. There’s no body, but Isaak’s brother Antoine swears that he was taken on a long midnight carriage ride to a mysterious house where he was left with his dying brother for several hours, then taken home just as strangely. (But Antoine takes opium; how much of his story was a drugged dream?) Meanwhile, Isaak’s mother Genevieve – who, like January’s mother, was a “placee”, an ex-slave mistress of a rich white man – is trying to get control of the money Isaak inherited from his father by claiming that Isaak is her slave!
But January lives in a world full of greedy, unscrupulous people – Genevieve Jumon is far from the worst. There are rivalries between the old French upper class of the city and the newly arrived Americans. There are many humiliating laws and customs that “people of color”, slave and free, ignore at their peril. There’s a city government determined to insist that, no matter how many people die in the prison, no yellow fever and certainly no cholera has reached New Orleans. There are prostitutes of all ages. There are hired assassins – one is after January. There’s an uncounted number of voodoo practioners (including Olympe), headed by the notorious Marie Laveau, who winds up as one of January’s allies in finding out what happened to Isaak Jumon.
And there’s Isaak’s grandmother Cordelia, once a beauty of the French court before the Revolution, a truly evil woman noted for unusual cruelty to her slaves and her sons alike. But Cordelia is very old now; does she have enough strength left to be the killer in this case? Maybe not. Even so, if you read this story prepare to be genuinely shocked at the crimes of one of the characters; they go far beyond the usual greed and revenge motives of mystery stories.
And Benjamin January? An honest man doing his best to keep his head above water in a harsh world, an intelligent man trying to understand the people around him, a strong, brave, and determined man struggling to protect the people he loves, a man who can coax information out of people at almost every level of his society and keep his own thoughts to himself. If he can’t save Olympe from the hangman and the yellow fever that’s killing one prisoner after another, nobody can.