In A Free Man of Color and Sold Down the River, Benjamin January guided readers through the seductive maze of New Orleans' darkest quarters. Now January joins the orchestra of the city's top opera house — only to become enmeshed in a web of hate and greed more murderous than any drama onstage.
In 1835, the cold February streets glitter with masked revelers in Carnival costumes. An even more brilliant display is promised at the American Theater, where impresario Lorenzo Belaggio has brought the first Italian opera to town. But it's pitch-black in the muddy alley outside the stage door when Benjamin January, coming from rehearsal with the orchestra, hears a slurred whisper, sees the flash of a knife, and is himself wounded as he rescues Belaggio from a vicious attack.
The bombastic impresario first accuses two of his tenors, then suspects his rival, the manager of New Orleans' other opera company. Could competition for audiences really provoke such violent skulduggery? Or has Belaggio taken too many chances in the catfight between two sopranos, one superseded by the other as his mistress and his prima donna?
But burning in January's mind and heart is a darker possibility. The opera Belaggio plans to present — a magnificent version of Othello — strikes a shocking chord in this culture. Is the murderous tragedy of the noble Moor and his lady, the spectacle of a black man's passion for a white beauty, one that some Creole citizen — or American parvenu — would do anything to keep off the stage?
Bloody threats and voodoo signs, poison and brutal murder seem to implicate many strange bedfellows. And Benjamin must discover who — in rage, retribution, or an insidious new commerce in this beautiful cutthroat city — will kill and kill ... and who will Die Upon a Kiss.
The opening in New Orleans in 1835 of a new opera company propels Hambly's fifth atmospheric historical mystery (after 2000's Sold Down the River) featuring freed slave Benjamin January. As with the other entries in this popular series, the background is a hook on which Hambly hangs her main theme the conflicts of a society based on race, sex and class. A widowed, European-trained surgeon who makes his living as a piano player and teacher, January is in the orchestra of an Italian opera company backed by the "Americans" who are moving south into New Orleans and threatening the power of the Creoles those of French and Spanish heritage in a city still French three decades after the Louisiana Purchase. When two members of the company are attacked and a backer murdered, January and his colleague, the erudite, consumptive, white violinist Hannibal Sefton, help their friend Abishag Shaw, the wily Kentuckian of the New Orleans City Guards, to investigate. The Benjamin January series is well worth reading for the depth and richness of the author's historical research and her exquisite evocation of the Byzantine class structure, exotic culture and menacing politics of antebellum New Orleans. In an afterword, Hambly describes early 19th-century opera as "grandiose, overblown, politically hot, sometimes silly but enormous fun." Unfortunately, this could also describe this book, which is crowded with so many red herrings, subplots and characters that the reader often needs a program to keep track.