Review: The Shirt on His Back by Barbara Hambly

The Shirt on His Back by Barbara HamblyFormat read: print book borrowed from the library
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback
Genre: Historical mystery
Series: Benjamin January, #10
Length: 256 pages
Publisher: Severn House Publishers
Date Released: June 1, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Abishag Shaw is seeking vengeance for his brother’s murder – and Benjamin January is seeking money after his bank crashes. Far beyond the frontier, in the depths of the Rocky Mountains, both are to be found at the great Rendezvous of the Mountain Men: a month-long orgy of cheap booze, shooting-matches, tall tales and cut-throat trading. But at the rendezvous, the discovery of a corpse opens the door to hints of a greater plot, of madness and wholesale murder …

My Review:

There’s a banking crisis. Too many people lose everything they have invested when the banks fail, and their investments are suddenly worthless. Major banks close. Jobs are hard to come by. People who were doing mostly okay start to think they might lose their homes to foreclosure.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

But in The Shirt On His Back, the tenth of Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January historical mysteries, the banking crisis is the Panic of 1837, under the new Presidency of Martin Van Buren.

Ben January, a free man of color in New Orleans, is a Paris-trained surgeon who is not permitted to practice in the pre-Civil War U.S. In the South, he has to keep his papers with him at all times to prevent being falsely picked up as a runaway slave.

He makes his living as a piano player, and he is excellent at that profession. He also gives lessons to the mixed-race daughters of liaisons between the local planters and their mixed-race mistresses. Women just like his sisters.

His wife Rose runs a school for girls. But families cut back on lessons and school when times get tough. Then the bank closes, and their savings are lost.

Sometimes, Ben solves murders, by assisting the New Orleans Police in the person of Lieutenant Abishag Shaw. Shaw has come to trust Ben’s judgment, a far and delicate reach across race and class in that time and place that they have both come to value.

So when Shaw comes to Ben with a job offer, Ben takes it, no questions asked. He needs the money. And he trusts Shaw.

Ben should have asked some questions first, because Shaw sets out on the road to vengeance, to a place where no one will stay his hand, where no one will punish him for shooting the man who killed his brother.

1837 Rendezvous
1837 Rendezvous by Alfred Jacob Miller

But it is the journey of a lifetime. A trip into the Rocky Mountains, to see a way of life that was already dying. They are heading to a fur trappers’ rendezvous to trap a killer. Unless he traps them first.

Escape Rating B: The two things that stand out in this story are the portrait of the fur trappers’ rendezvous and that we finally get some hints about Shaw’s background.

By 1837, the world of the fur trappers was coming to an end, and some of them, at least, knew it. Beavers were being hunted to extinction. The Natives’ way of life was being undermined by “civilization”, disease and alcohol. Most of all, the pristine, uninhabited wilderness was getting crowded with colonists. Americans were moving towards the “Oregon country”.

There’s a patina of nostalgia throughout the story. Men who can see their world coming to an end, and Ben January’s yearning for the wife he left behind in New Orleans.

The story we follow is Shaw’s need to find the man who murdered his younger brother Johnny. The problem is that Shaw doesn’t know what the murderer, Frank Boden, even looks like. So we have a search, an investigation, and finally, some resolution, although not exactly the one that Shaw was hoping for.

Centennial by James MichenerThe murder investigation takes a backseat to the adventure story. Although the wilderness adventure is fascinating (and reminded me fondly of the early chapters of James Michener’s Centennial), Benjamin January’s story loses something when one of its most important characters is missing.

I missed New Orleans.

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Riding on the City of New Orleans

There are a lot of songs and stories that ride to the city of New Orleans, including the famous one about the train. In Steve Goodman‘s classic, covered by Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson and a host of others, the train doesn’t actually arrive by the time the song ends. It’s going to get there “by morning.”

Whenever a story is set in New Orleans, the city is more than just the setting, it’s also a character. Anyone who has been mesmerized by Louis’ story in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire will attest to that. There is no place in America with the cultural gumbo of history that would otherwise be able to make Louis’ and Lestat’s story fascinate the reader.

But Anne Rice‘s love affair with New Orleans is reflected in some of her other work. One of her earliest stand alone novels is The Feast of All Saints. The story is about the gens de couleur libre, the free people of color who lived in New Orleans before the Civil War. It is a society that seems uniquely part of New Orleans history, and that most people know nothing about. The writing is as compelling as Interview, but what fascinates is how fragile the world of the gens de couleur was. Everything existed on sufferance, and when that sufferance was strained or torn, disaster struck.

Part of what makes New Orleans such a unique part of America is the different cultures that have held sway over that port city. The French, then the Spanish, back to the French and finally the relatively new American Republic bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1801. When the U.S. took over New Orleans, there was a clash of cultures between the planters and the new Americans who came to the city and the Territory. Culture clashes make for great stories.

Barbara Hambly’s historical mystery series is set at the time of that cultural clash. Benjamin January returned to New Orleans from Paris in 1833, after the death of his wife. Ben January trained as a surgeon in Paris, but he makes his living as a piano player in New Orleans. Why? Because he is A Free Man of Color, as the title of the first book in the series names him. He can only practice medicine during the annual cholera epidemic, when most of the white doctors flee the city. But January’s insider/outsider perspective allows him to see into the heart of what is unsaid in every facet of New Orleans society. The new Americans, particularly one policeman, discover that his ability to see into all parts of Creole society, areas that the Americans have no entry into, may be useful in solving crime. But it’s the view into Benjamin’s world that is compelling. The latest book in this series, The Shirt on his Back, just came out in June.

For a different perspective on historic New Orleans, David Fulmer‘s Chasing the Devil’s Tail takes place during a different clash. His Valentine St. Cyr is a private detective in the fabled Storyville district in the early 1900s. He investigates the death of a musician just at the point when the blues was giving birth to jazz.

Katrina also gets its due. In The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, a history professor receives a map of New Orleans. But it isn’t just a map of streets and tourist destinations. It’s a map of historical moments. And if the professor can manage to visit all of the “moments” and do all of the right things, he can undo the biggest mistake of his life–leaving his lover to die amid the devastation that Katrina made out of New Orleans.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man who was born old and lived backwards, was originally set in Baltimore. Made into a movie post-Katrina, it was set in New Orleans, using the oncoming storm as an integral part of the frame. The story as written is quite short, and available free at Project Gutenberg. The movie was much greater than the sum of its original parts.

The lyrics in my head are from an old rock classic by Poco, Heart of the Night. Something about the words and the music still evoke New Orleans for me. The song compares an ex-lover to the city on Lake Pontchartrain. And as the song rightly says, “she’s so full of surprises”. She’s always been full of stories, too.