Die Upon a Kiss
Grade : A

Barbara Hambly’s first mystery set in antebellum New Orleans, A Free Man of Color, has a prominent place on my keeper shelf. Though I haven’t read the intervening several books in the series I was eager to review the latest installment, Die Upon a Kiss.

Benjamin January is an accomplished physician and a virtuoso musician. He is also a second-class citizen struggling to make a living as a piano teacher, because he is black, born a slave and freed in childhood. It is through his intelligent, discerning eyes that we view the breathtaking spectacle of antebellum New Orleans society. In this book, January has become a member of the orchestra of the new St. Mary’s Opera Company. The Opera’s impressario, a talented but flamboyant composer named Bellagio, is nearly murdered by footpads outside the American Theater.

The plot of this novel centers around the company’s production of Belaggio’s opera Othello, the story of a black man who loved and married a white woman and then killed her in a jealous rage. In New Orleans, such a story is viewed as disgusting spectacle; could someone be willing to murder to assure that it will never be performed?

“Nigger” is the first word of this novel, and questions of race pervade this novel, as they did the society of New Orleans. In fact, Die Upon a Kiss is a magnificent portrayal of how the existence of slavery tainted every level of society. Although not one of the main characters is a slave, they are all, white, black, and colored, profoundly affected by slavery. Skin color is important to all of them. White skin is of course preferable, with Americans being far lower in status than the Creole. Light-skinned free mulattoes have far greater freedom than dark-skinned free blacks, neither of whom willingly associate with black slaves.

Hambly evokes the incredible pressure of living in slavery-intense New Orleans. She describes the cruel custom by which the white wives and colored mistresses of the Creole aristocracy attend parties in adjoining ballrooms, separated only by a curtain, so that the men can go back and forth between the two. A fair-skinned woman of African heritage is expected to become a placée (or kept mistress) of a white man; one such secondary character attempts to make a living without becoming a placée, and lives at poverty’s door. January must constantly be on guard against appearing too “uppity;” he must watch fellow black men and women being abused and can do nothing about it. And at all times he lives with the knowledge that if an unwary man or woman of color is attacked, kidnapped, or murdered by a white person, there will be no justice, for justice is only for the white.

Hambly is an author who delights in detail. She takes the time to note the difference between Creole French, the gombo French of the slave-quarters, and January’s Parisian. She delights in describing the flourishes of different characters’ clothing and speculating on how these reflect their personalities. Backstage rivalries, slave prize-fighting, the practice of dyeing butter with marigold petals, and New Orleans’ role as a conduit for guns and mercenaries to Central America are all examined.

If, instead of skimming all this detail, you surrender to it, you find that your immersion in Hambly’s New Orleans is complete. When you look up from reading To Die Upon A Kiss, you feel like you’re awakening from a dream or emerging through a looking-glass from another world. I don’t believe I have ever read another book (excepting Hambly’s own A Free Man of Color) that so successfully portrays another time and place.

Although I loved this book, as a mystery it is not an easy read. I had to make a list of the characters to keep them all straight, and even though all the pieces did eventually fit, it was somewhat difficult to follow how January managed to put them together. Veteran readers of complex mysteries will probably have no difficulty; I was occasionally confused.

I have rarely been disappointed by Hambly, who is also the author of over twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, and I heartily recommend this book. I am headed out right now to find the others in the series that I’ve missed.

Reviewed by Jennifer Keirans

Grade: A

Book Type: Historical Mystery

Sensuality: N/A

Review Date : July 2, 2001

Publication Date: 2002

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Jennifer Keirans

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