Barbara Hambly has been one of my favorite authors since the 1980s. I discovered her in the Fantasy realm and devoured all of those novels. In 1998, she wrote a historical mystery called A Free Man of Color, about a free black man living in New Orleans during the early 1830s. I read it and was immediately hooked – she started my interest in mystery novels. Crimson Angel is her 13th novel about Benjamin January, a skilled pianist and a Paris-trained physician who solves mysteries in his spare time.
This novel focuses on a secret in his wife’s family, one for which someone is willing to kill. One of Rose’s two white half-brothers comes seeking Benjamin’s help in searching for a secret treasure in Haiti, left behind when the slaves rose up in rebellion and killed or drove out all the white planters. Although Benjamin initially declines to help him because of the dangers involved in traveling to Haiti, the brother is murdered, and someone attempts to kill Rose. It becomes obvious that in order to protect Rose and their son, Benjamin must find the mysterious treasure before the killer does.
Hambly excels in her vibrant descriptions and the minute details that she puts into her works. The language is lyrical and almost poetic. In addition, the historical minutiae that she includes are evidence of the intense research Hambly must have done. I wish that high school history classes would teach from these types of books rather than the boring texts that I remember. During the course of the novel, Hambly describes some of the casual atrocities of slavery as well as the relationships that exist between races and within families; however, she does so simply through the telling of her tale, rather than addressing it directly.
Although this is the continuation of a lengthy series, anyone could pick this novel up without having read any of the preceding ones. Hambly does an excellent job of giving enough background information without setting it aside in a prologue or explaining it through dialogue. One simply starts the novel and is immediately immersed into the politics of the French Orleans and the American Orleans, the interactions between masters and slaves, and lastly the everyday life of traveling during the first part of the 19th century.
At the end of the novel, Benjamin is faced with a horrific moral dilemma – to say more would spoil the story. The decision he is forced to make was extremely difficult, and I am not sure that I would have been able to do the same. I came away from the book questioning my own values, and I am still amazed at how Hambly was able to invoke such thoughtfulness so obliquely. Needless to say, I cannot wait for her next novel. I eagerly search her website for short story scraps that continue the adventures of characters that she wrote about over 30 years ago. I cannot recommend her writing enough.