Drinking Gourd by Barbara Hambly (Historical Mystery Novel, 2016).
Until picking this up, I only knew Barbara Hambly for her series of vampire novels, but the above turns out to be the sixth of her historical mystery series headlined by Benjamin January–a free black man in New Orleans long before the Civil War (this particular book takes place in 1839). A vividly drawn and multifaceted character, Benjamin is a Paris-trained doctor but to support his family he’s forced to make his living as a musician in a combination circus, freak show and an otherwise all-white-in-blackface traveling minstrel show. Beyond that very unusual bio, he also is a member of the Underground Railroad, assisting slaves’ escape to the north. Hambly does an exceptional job making Benjamin’s unlikely personal history believable. She deftly portrays how his personal history fits into the New Orleans of the time, which still thought of itself as more a French than an American city and therefore had rather different social mores.
This time out, an urgent message calls Benjamin up river to Vicksburg on a secret mission. Rex Ballou, one of the Underground’s most active ‘conductors,’ has been shot by a militia patrol. While he and the runaways with him reached a safe if temporary hiding place, they’re effectively trapped and he needs medical attention.
Hannibal, January’s delightfully sardonic co-worker and fellow Underground activist, accompanies Ben. They pose as master and slave, under assumed names. They contact other anti-slavery agents and Ben treats Ballou’s wound. The problem of how to sneak the escaping slaves north still remains, when one their secret allies is suddenly murdered–and the head of the entire Mississippi operation is jailed as the prime suspect.
Now Ben must find the real killer–and do so in a way that doesn’t blow anybody’s cover–or the lot of them stand to be lynched as “slave-stealing abolitionists.” The necessity of maneuvering very carefully through a society where no black is even allowed to testify in court (and even showing that he’s educated might very well prove fatal) complicates matters. So does a number of painful subplots and terrible secrets (some racial, others sexual in nature) that come into play before mostly satisfactory resolutions are reached. The situation is too complicated and too fraught for everyone to come out happy, but January (and the author) do the best they can.
Rich period atmosphere and excellent characters (not mere cardboard ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones) make this a doubly engrossing work.