cover image DIE UPON A KISS


Barbara Hambly, . . Bantam, $23.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-553-10924-5

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. (June 26)