Not usually a fan of historical novels, I hesitated somewhat when I picked up a copy of Wet Grave by Barbara Hambly, but as fate would have it, I did buy the book, and I am ever so grateful I did. The story takes place in 1830s New Orleans, and highlights a time in history when justice was an elusive luxury, especially if one was a freed colored citizen.
Benjamin January, the well educated son of a placeé – a former slave kept as a mistress by the man who bought and freed her – who is now a surgeon and musician, is summoned by his sister when an old drunk prostitute is found slashed to death in her own home. When January arrives on the scene, he recognizes the dead woman as Hesione LeGros, a once beautiful society mistress he had the opportunity to befriend many years before. Nobody but January seems to care about the old woman’s death, and he is encouraged by many to abandon the case once it becomes apparent authorities are not willing to become involved.
January, however, is haunted by his own need to discover the truth and, supported by Rose Vitriac, the woman he loves, he embarks on a journey of no return, in which the hunter becomes the hunted, and some questions are best left unanswered.
When murder strikes closer to home and leaves January heart-broken and angry, he and Rose are on the run, colored fugitives seeking sanctuary in the unforgiving depths of stormy bayous. Will they discover who murdered Old Hessie, or will they also fall prey in a game of cat and mouse?
Barbara Hambly has masterfully created a story one can get lost into, with a plot as thick and edgy as the sultry heat swallowing the Deep South in mid-summer. The historical references are well developed and even sprinkled with delightful encounters; among those, the meeting of January with Marie Laveau, the notorious queen of voodoo, as he seeks guidance on his quest.
The novel is extremely descriptive, and rich details are freely dispensed to allow the reader the luxury of being transported through time and space. Wet Grave is a great read for anyone passionate of historical fiction, for mystery lovers and for those interested in southern fiction with an edge into reality.