Benjamin January and his new wife, Rose, are caught up in Mexican intrigue in the Days of the Dead, Barbara Hambly's latest January novel. In it, Hambly removes January from the familiar confines of 1830s New Orleans to put him in a new environment, though the suspense, mystery, and characterization is the same: top-notch. Hambly has done her research and it shows, as she immerses the reader in chaotic 1835 Mexico City, months before General Santa Anna marched on Texas. The fact that she provides an interesting story that will always keep you guessing is an added benefit.
The Benjamin January mystery series is set in New Orleans in the 1830s. Ben is a free colored man, the son of a slave. His mother and her children were bought by Denis St. Janvier and set free; his mother became St. Janvier's mistress while he paid for Ben's education. Ben is a trained physician and also a well-trained musician. He went to Paris when he realized that he'd never be able to practice medicine in New Orleans, staying abroad for many years until his beloved Ayasha died of cholera. Ben couldn't bring himself to stay there any longer and moved back home. Since he can't be a doctor there, he makes his living as a musician. He also finds himself getting involved in solving crimes, aiding the local police.
Hannibal Sefton, one of the few white men who has ever treated Benjamin as a brother, is in trouble. Down in Mexico City, living with his current lover Consuela, he has been pegged for murdering her brother, Fernando. In desperation, Hannibal sends for his friend to help him out of the jam, and to discover who really killed Fernando. Benjamin and his new bride, Rose, hurry down to help. Don Prospero, Consuela's father, is protecting Hannibal from the Mexican authorities, who are sure that he committed the crime. However, he's not doing it out of a belief in Hannibal's innocence. Instead, he is certain that Fernando will return on the Mexican Day of the Dead and tell Don Prospero what he thinks should be done with Hannibal. Hannibal is certain that, after November 1, his days will be numbered.
When January arrives, he finds himself embroiled in family politics as well as the politics between Mexico, the United States, and the country of Texas. General Santa Anna, one of Prospero's friends and Presidente of Mexico, is determined to wipe out the Texans who want to be free, and he needs Prospero's monetary contributions to do it. Also, he is amused by Hannibal, so he continues to stifle the authorities' attempt to take Hannibal in. But he is leaving soon, so Hannibal will be without his protection at all.
Racing against time, stifled by uncooperative family members and the lack of proof about what happened that fateful night, January must save his friend from the hangman's noose, keep himself and his wife alive, and solve the crime. He also discovers that just because blacks are free in Mexico, one does not have to be owned to be a slave.
Barbara Hambly has long been one of my favorite authors, and the January series is always a treat. Hambly's a master at creating atmosphere, but New Orleans has seems to inspire her to new heights. This time, even as she transplants January to Mexico City, she continues to set the stage well. Her descriptions place the reader right in the dirty streets, the majestic countryside, or the Aztec pyramids. Even when she just has two characters walking down the street talking, she sets the mood with vivid descriptions of the lepers begging for money, carriages trundling down the street and merchants hawking their goods. If you are not a fan of description and just want the "meat" of the story, then Hambly's books are not for you. But if you like to be "in the scene" with the characters, you can't beat the January series.
That doesn't mean that nothing happens in these books. Far from it. The mystery Hambly presents is intriguing. There is a little bit of action, too, as the bullets do fly, and the ending is breathtaking in its tension. Hambly does a wonderful job wrapping the mystery around the setting, making Mexico an integral part of it. While she has clearly done a lot of research of the time period, she doesn't present it to the reader on a plate, showcasing it. Instead, everything she puts in there is purposeful. Some of it is to set the scene, but most of it involves the mystery in some way, including the ways family worked in Mexico at the time. It truly is seamless and the reader can learn a lot just by reading (she does point out, in notes at the back of the book, a couple of incidents of poetic license she took).
All the characters can be a bit confusing at first, but overall Hambly does well with them. It can be a bit hard to keep all of the family relationships straight in the reader's mind. One good thing that she does, avoiding a trap that other series writers don't, is to not try forcing all of her characters into a book. In Wet Grave, she left Hannibal out. In Days of the Dead, she doesn't come up with some reason why January's family would get involved in something down in Mexico. Thus his sisters and mother, along with Lieutenant Shaw, make no appearance. While I missed Shaw (my favorite character in the series), I'm glad she didn't force the issue.
So we're left with Ben, Rose and Hannibal, and the three of them are marvelous. Rose has grown in the previous books from a reserved woman fearful of men into a self-assured woman who is even able to flirt when necessary to find out information. Some people may think that's bad characterization, but I think it's a natural growth that her exposure to Benjamin and her ability to finally give in to her love for him has caused. She's dealt with her demons, and she has moved on, and Hambly has handled her progression wonderfully. Ben and Hannibal are also interesting people with weaknesses and faults, but virtues that go beyond them.
Hambly handles guest characters with equal aplomb. All are distinctive in some way, though again there are so many at first that it's hard to keep track. They aren't cardboard at all, with each one given three dimensions in some way. Probably the best is the cook, Guillenormand, who is very feisty when it comes to his cooking being questioned and flies off the handle at even the hint that something in his food may have caused the death. It's a great scene, and he's a fantastic character.
I heartily recommend Days of the Dead. It's not necessary to read any of the previous books, but I do believe you'll get more out of it if you do. If you like suspense and historical mysteries, give the Benjamin January series a try. You won't regret it.