Monday, July 18, 2016

Drinking Gourd by Barbara Hambly

Drinking Guard: The New Benjamin January Novel by Barbara Hambly --- 248 pages

Another impossible-to-put-down historical mystery, number 14 in the Benjamin January series, by Barbara Hambly, featuring a free man of color in antebellum New Orleans.

In the sweltering summer of 1839, Ben and his wife Rose are still trying to recover from the bank crash precipitated by President Andrew Jackson in 1837. Ben has taken a job with a traveling minstrel show for $10 a week. He is accompanied by his friend and fellow musician Hannibal Sefton. Since Hannibal is white, with suitably forged papers, he can pose as Ben's owner on their travels. When $10 a week can support a family, and a prime field hand sells for $1500 on the auction block, the pretense that Hannibal is his master is Ben's only protection from the slave trade.

Just as the traveling show is quitting Natchez, Ben receives a message asking for help. Up river at Vicksburg, a black barber named Rex Ballou and a white preacher named Ezekias Drummond have partnered to help escaping slaves flee north on the Underground Railroad.  Now, this "station" on the railroad could be exposed because Rex Ballou has been shot when a roving patrol stumbled on a "cargo" of slaves he was leading to the next station. If Ballou's cover is blown, everyone involved will come under suspicion and be subject to bloody reprisals. He needs a doctor to help him get on his feet again quickly.

Then Ezekias Drummond is murdered, and Jubal Cain, the man secretly responsible for coordinating the whole railroad in Mississippi, is framed by a prominent local planter who thinks Cain is having an affair with his wife.  As Ben tries to sort through all the lies and deceptions to discover the even more terrible truth he is beginning to suspect, Hannibal is attacked. Without his "owner" to protect him, Ben must flee for his life into the trackless swamp land. Unless he can ensure Hannibal's survival and solve the murder, Ben knows he will never make it home to New Orleans and Rose.

Click HERE to read the review from Kirkus.

Click HERE to read the review from Publishers Weekly.

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