In Dead Water, Barbara Hambly gives us what could be the last of the Benjamin January series of suspense novels (her web site says that a decision won't be made on further entries until next year). If that is the case, she chose a more regular novel than usual to go out on. It's not a bad book, but it's more straightforward and not as intricate as past January books. It's still worth checking out, though.
In Dead Water, Ben and Rose are startled and frustrated to hear that the manager of the bank where they have all of their money (obtained in a previous adventure) saved in order to make their final payment on their house has stolen it all and is heading up the Mississippi river on a steamboat. The new manager asks Ben to book passage on the same boat and attempt to figure out where the gold and bank notes are. Ben engages the help of his old friend, Hannibal, in their quest, and Hannibal is able to act the role of master to Ben's slave to avoid suspicion. Once they get on the boat, they stumble onto more intrigue than a mere case of missing gold. Secret affairs, slave trading, a voodoo curse and a man who makes a living stealing slaves complicate matters. Ben has to sort it all out while still keeping his cover and not acting like an "uppity black man." It's a good thing there's a future president of the Confederacy on board, especially when the bank manager ends up dead.
This sounds like a complicated plot, so why did I say it's more straightforward than usual? Usually, the situation that Ben & Rose find themselves in is very complex. Twists and turns abound, and it can get confusing for the reader. This isn't the case in Dead Water. Instead, Hambly throws a lot of simpler plots at us, hitting us with quantity instead of complexity. It doesn't work quite as well, though Hambly saves it with excellent characterization. The problem becomes that all of the plots are resolved almost simultaneously, and Hambly falls once again into the annoying habit of having a sudden gun battle resolve a few of them. This has happened a bit too often in this series, and is probably the only fault.
Once again, Hambly dazzles in terms of characterization. Ben and Rose leap off the page, and Hannibal is his usual witty, sardonic and slightly opium-addled self. The dialogue between the three of them is wonderful, and the other characters are quite good, too - Hambly captures their emotions perfectly. When Ben gets left off the boat, his panic at the thought of Rose being captured by a slave trader and sold away from him is palpable, the tension riveting. The interaction between the other characters crackles as well, with animosity between the two slave traders, romances and affairs all over the ship and the possibility of a voodoo priestess stowed away in the hold. This is great stuff.
It wouldn't be a Hambly review if I didn't mention the atmosphere. Hambly sets the stage like nobody I've ever known. She'll spend a couple of paragraphs just describing the setting where Ben and Rose are walking, allowing the reader to picture it vividly. Here's an example:
"In the windows of a dozen ramshackle sheds, women of every shade from alabaster to ebony leaned out and shrieked with laughter; a man in a saloon doorway yelled, 'Still got the family jewels, Bert?' The smell of the tangled criss-cross of streets under the summer heat was like the Swamp in New Orleans, and the feel of the place – of casual violence and uncaring vice – was, if anything, worse."
These people have nothing to do with the plot, but I'll bet you get a picture of where Ben is. As a reader, you dive into the setting, and you feel like you're on a steamship in the middle of the Mississippi. Hambly's prose is evocative, and it makes the book even more enjoyable.
One problem for longtime fans - and it's also a problem with Days of the Dead - is the lack of Abishag Shaw, the New Orleans police chief. He's the best character in the entire series, and he's been gone for a while. For this reason, I'll be even sadder if this is the last book in the series. On the other hand, it is nice that Hambly doesn't try to shoehorn characters into the story where they don't belong. Some mystery novelists do; Hambly avoids that trap.
Dead Water suffers only in comparison to the other Ben January books. There are a bit too many coincidences for it to be among the best. However, it's still better than a lot of other books out there. If this is Ben January's last hurrah, it's certainly not a bad one to go out on.