Graveyard Dust: A Novel of Suspense

Graveyard Dust: A Novel of Suspense

by Barbara Hambly

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Bestselling author Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color and Fever Season established Benjamin January as one of mystery's most exciting heroes. Now he returns in a powerful new novel, a sensual mosaic of old New Orleans, where cultures clash and murder can hover around every darkened corner....

It is St. John's Eve in the summer of 1834 when Benjamin January—Creole physician and music teacher—is shattered by the news that his sister has been arrested for murder. The Guards have only a shadow of a case against her. But Olympe—mystical and rebellious—is a woman of color, whose chance for justice is slim.

As Benjamin probes the allegation, he is targeted by a new threat: graveyard dust sprinkled at his door, whispering of a voodoo death curse. Now, to save Olympe's life—and his own—Benjamin knows he must glean information wherever he can find it. For in the heavy darkness of New Orleans, the truth is what you make it, and justice can disappear with the night's warm breeze as easy as graveyard dust....

From the Paperback edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307785299
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/05/2011
Series: Benjamin January , #3
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 265,972
File size: 666 KB

About the Author

Barbara Hambly is the author of The Emancipator’s Wife, a finalist for the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. She is also the author of Fever Season, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and seven acclaimed historical novels.

From the Paperback edition.

Read an Excerpt

African drums in darkness sullen as tar.

Rossini's "Di tanti palpiti" unspooling like golden ribbon from the ballroom's open windows.

Church bells and thunder.

Benjamin January flexed his aching shoulders and thought, Rain coming. Leaning on the corner of Colonel Pritchard's ostentatious house, he could smell the sharp scent in the hot weight of the night, hear the shift in the feverish tempo of the crickets and the frogs. The dim orange glow of an oil lamp fell through the servants' door beside him, tipping the weeds beyond the edge of the yard with fire.

Then the air changed, a cool flash of silkiness on his cheek, and he smelled blood.

The drums knocked and tripped, dancing rhythms. Fairly close to the house, he thought. This far above Canal Street the lots in the American suburb of St. Mary were large, and few had been built on yet. Ten feet from kitchen, yard, and carriage house grew the native oaks and cypresses of the Louisiana swamps, as they had grown for time beyond reckoning. January picked out the voices of the drums, as on summer nights like this one in his childhood he'd used to tell frog from frog. That light knocking would be a hand drum no bigger than a vase, played with fast-tripping fingertips. The heavy fast thudding was the bamboula, the log drum--a big one, by the sound. The hourglass-shaped tenor spoke around them, patted sharply on both sides.

One of the men on the plantation where January had been born had had one of those. He'd kept it hidden in a black oak, back in the cipriere, the swamp beyond the cane fields. Forty years ago, when the Spanish had ruled the land, for a slave to own a drum was a whipping offense.

"Not meaning to presume, sir." Aeneas, Colonel Pritchard's cook, stepped from the kitchen's gold-lit arch and crossed the small yard to where January stood at the foot of the back gallery stairs.  "But I'd be getting back up to the ballroom were I you." A stout man of about January's own forty-one years, the cook executed a diffident little half bow as he spoke. It was a tribute to January's status as a free man, though the cook was far lighter of skin. "Colonel Pritchard's been known to dock a man's pay, be he gone for more than a minute or two. I seen him do it with a fiddle player, only the other week."

January sighed, not surprised. The kitchen's doors and windows stood wide to the sweltering night, and the nervous glances thrown by the cook, the majordomo, and the white-jacketed waiter toward the house every time one of them cracked a joke or consumed a tartlet that should have gone on the yellow-flowered German china told its own story. "Thank you." January drew his gloves from his coat pocket and put them on again, white kid and thirty cents a pair, and even that movement caused bolts of red-hot lightning to shoot through his shoulder blades, muscles, and spine. He'd been a surgeon for six years at the Hotel-Dieu in Paris and knew exactly how heavy a human arm was, but it seemed to him that he'd never quite appreciated that weight as he did now, after an hour and a half of playing quick-fire waltzes and polkas on the piano with an injury that hadn't healed.

A shift of the night air brought the smell of smoke again, the knocking of the drums, and the hot brief stink of blood. His eyes met the cook's. The cook looked away.

Not my business, thought January, and mounted the stairs. He guessed what was going on.

The air in the ballroom seemed waxy and thick as ambergris: one could have cut it in slices with a wire. Pomade and wool, spilled wine and the gas lamps overhead, and--because at least two-thirds of the guests were Americans--the acrid sweet sourness of spit tobacco. January edged through the servants' door and, behind the screen of potted palmettos and wilting vines that sheltered the musicians, sought to resume his seat at the piano as inconspicuously as it was possible for a man six feet, three inches tall; built like a bull; and black as a raw captive new-dragged down the gangplank of a slave ship from the Guinea coast, and never mind the neat black coat, the linen shirt and white gloves, the spotless cravat.

Hannibal Sefton, who'd been distracting the guests from the fact that there hadn't been a dance for nearly ten minutes, glanced at him inquiringly and segued from "Di tanti" into a Schubert lied; January nodded his thanks. The fiddler was sheet white in the gaslight and perspiration ran down the shivering muscles of his clenched jaw, but the music flowed gracefully, like angels dancing. January didn't know how he did it. Since an injury in April, January had been unable to play at any of the parties that made up his livelihood in America--he should not, he knew, be playing now; but finances were desperate, and it would be a long summer. He, at least, he thought, had the comfort of knowing that he would heal.

Voices around them, rough and nasal in the harsh English tongue January hated:

"Oh, hell, it's just a matter of time before the Texians have enough of Santa Anna. Just t'other day I heard there's been talk of them breakin' from Mexico. . . ."

"Paid seven hundred and thirty dollars for her at the downtown Exchange, and turns out not only was she not a cook, but she has scrofula into the bargain!"

Colonel Pritchard was an American, and a fair percentage of New Orleans's American business community had turned out to sample Aeneas's cold sugared ham and cream tarts. But here and there in the corners of the room could be heard the softer purr of Creole French.

"Any imbecile can tell you the currency must be made stable, but why this imbecile Jackson believes he can do so by handing the country's money to a parcel of criminals. . . ."

And, ominously, "My bank, sir, was one of those to receive the redistributed monies from the Bank of the United States. . . ."

"You all right?" Uncle Bichet leaned around his violoncello to whisper, and January nodded. A lie. He felt as if knives were being run into his back with every flourish of the piano keys. In the pause that followed the lied, while January, Hannibal, Uncle Bichet, and nephew Jacques changed their music to the "Lancers Quadrille," the drums could be clearly heard, knocking and tapping not so very far from the house.

You forget us? they asked, and behind them thunder grumbled over the lake. You play Michie Mozart's little tunes, and forget all about us out here drumming in the cipriere?

All those years in Paris, Michie Couleur Libre in your black wool coat, you forget about us?

About how it felt to know everything could be taken away?  Father-mother-sisters all gone? Nobody to know or care if you cried? You forget what it was, to be a slave?

If you think a man has to be a slave to lose everything he loves at a whim, January said to the drums, pray let me introduce you to Monsieur le Cholera and to her who in her life was my wife. And with a flirt and a leap, the music sprang forward, like a team of bright-hooved horses, swirling the drums' dark beat away.  Walls of shining gold, protecting within them the still center that the world's caprices could not touch.

In the strange white gaslight, alien and angular and so different from the candle glow in which most of the French Creoles still lived, January picked out half a dozen women present in the magpie prettiness of second mourning, calling cards left by Monsieur le Cholera and his local cousin Bronze John, as the yellow fever was called. Technically, Suzanne Marcillac Pritchard's birthday ball was a private party, not a public occasion, suitable even for widows in first mourning to attend--not that there weren't boxes at the Theatre d'Orleans closed in with latticework so that the recently bereaved could respectably enjoy the opera.

From the Paperback edition.

Table of Contents


From the Author

Since my college days (back in the late Mesozoic Era) I've wanted to do a mystery set in the antebellum South with a free black protagonist. Historical mysteries are mostly comedies of manners--investigations of the ins and outs of the society in which they take place--and the artificiality of that milieu fascinated me. I deliberately steered clear of the Civil War and the era immediately preceding it because a) a lot of other people have done it better than I could and b) because the issues, and the people, were very different even a generation earlier. It mokes it harder to research--very little is done about that changeover generation between Jeffersonian and Jacksonian America--but the more I study, the more fascinating stuff I find. It's a goldmine for a writer.

One of the things I enjoy most about the Benjamin January series is the continuing cast of characters. Family and friends are a major subtheme of the books: you need your family. You need your friends. After Benjamin s wife dies he returns to New Orleans, a city in which he will automatically become a non-person and will be in periodic danger of enslavement, because his family is there and in his grief and his pain he cannot survive without them. This is not only an emotional truth in all times and places, but very typical of the society about which I'm writing. To the antebellum New Orleans Creoles, both white and black, family was everything.

I must say I love writing Ben's mother. She's an absolutely horrible woman, snobbish and greedy and self-centered, but she's a wonderful mechanism to advance plots by giving the reader whole reams of Information in the form ofspiteful gossip. In fact I love writing about most of those people--Ben's sisters, and his worthless white pal Hannibal, and Lieutenant Shaw. I'll occasionally use historical characters in the books, like Madame Lalaurie or John Davis, the man who owned the Orleans Ballroom, and I try to get those people as accurately as I can, from what I can learn of them. There was no lack of fascinating people running around New Orleans in that era. About some of them. like the voodoo queen Marie Laveau, it's almost impossible to find "hard" information--only rumors and traditions and tales that have been colored by the prejudice or political correctness of the tellers.

I try, too, to portray what the city must have been like, what people must have been like. New Orleans fascinates me because there were literally four separate social systems--white Creoles, white Americans, mixed-race free colored, and black slaves--living in the same few square miles of territory and none of them dealing with the others unless absolutely necessary. The concept of solidarity between the free colored and the blacks was almost unheard-of: the free colored, for the most part, identified with the white Creoles, the people who had power and money. January is an interesting character to me precisely because he was raised with a French Creole outlook, because he has the outlook of an educated European. He's very much a man between two worlds, on outsider among his own people.

For most of my life I've been a student of history, although I've had a fairly long career as a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy before I began writing historical mysteries. My degree is in Medieval History, something I've seldom used in any of my writing: basically what I learned was how to research, and how to set up a non-industrial society. From the time I was five I knew that I wanted to write, and I've tried to do at least a little of the things I write about: hand-to-hand combat, riding a horse, loading black powder weapons. dancing, wearing a corset. My love of history was one of the things that drew me to New Orleans for the first time, though I fell in love with the city--and with my husband, whom I met there--and ended up living in New Orleans half-time for nearly three years.

I feel like I have so much more to learn.

About myself I will just say that I was born In California, raised here, and currently live in Los Angeles with my husband, two dogs, two cats, and two lizards. Like Benjamin, I treasure my family and my friends. In the course of getting my degree in Medieval History I spent a year at the University of Bordeaux in the early seventies, and in connection with writing a couple of historical vampire thrillers I've traveled through Europe learning that there are no back-alleys in the old part of Vienna (oops, I guess I'll have to re-write that back-alley scene) and that the sunlight in Istanbul is not like light anywhere else that I've seen.

My husband, who is a science fiction writer, and I go back to New Orleans a few, times a year. Even in the eighteenth century it was remarked on that once someone had lived there, the city would draw them back.

I hope to go on writing about that town for a very long time.

—Barbara Hambly

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Graveyard Dust 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Benjamin January, musician, doctor and free man of color, navigates the dangerous world of 19th century New Orleans. When his sister Olympe, a voodooienne, is accused of murder he knows that he will have to find the truth, because justice for the colored is hard to find. The risk to Olympe increases as yellow fever breaks out in the jail. And when January¿s life is targeted as well, by knife and by voodoo curse, he knows that time is running out. January¿s frantic search for the truth wanders through all levels of New Orleans society, from high class French Creoles, to the voodoo queen Marie Laveau, to a runaway slave village in the swamps. Hambly¿s obvious attention to detail and research is impressive and lends a gritty, believable reality to the New Orleans of 1834. The story is gripping, the setting is fascinating, and the characters are compelling. Hambly doesn¿t pull any punches in depicting the darker side of human nature and it is present in full force, not the least in the everyday injustices experienced by slaves and the free colored. But the good side of human nature makes enough of an appearance to mitigate the bleak outlook. January¿s budding relationship with Rose Vitrac is touching, as is his friendship with fellow musician and Irishman Hannibal. The action in the book is interspersed with a lot of soul searching by January as he tries to reconcile his Christianity with his sister¿s belief in voodoo. It¿s an interesting debate and it doesn¿t bog down the flow of the book. Some will find the descriptions of slavery and racism difficult to take, but Hambly in no way romanticizes the customs of the times.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am absolutely enthraled with this book and the two preceeding it. I am currently doing family research and find this series to be great!! The book is so entertaining that I can't wait to acquire and read the next book. The principle discriptors I'd use are entertaining, historically accurate, empathetic... This from the decentant of Choctaw, African, southern Europeans, and Creoles of color and white creoles.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the mix of history, mystery, and voodoo in 1830s New Orleans. Ms. Hambley has done her research and produces a very readable story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
calmclam on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The world and characters a vividly drawn and well-researched; the mystery is engaging. But I had a lot of trouble keeping all the characters straight and I'm still not sure I completely understand the mystery itself--I've never been more grateful for the "detective sums it all up" final chapter.
cmbohn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Benjamin Janvier's sister Olympe has been arrested for murder. She's been accused of using voodoo to kill the husband of a young woman who stands to inherit a nice estate, if she's not hung first. Benjamin knows that no one else will bother to help a voodoo woman, so if he doesn't try to save his sister from hanging, her case is hopeless. But while he's investigating the darker corners of pre-Civil War New Orleans, someone has marked him for his own voodoo curse. And if that doesn't work, a knife in the back will do the trick just as well.I really like this one. Creepy stuff going on here! Benjamin is a great character. Can't wait for the next one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I know it is difficult to understand big words at your age so I will try to help. A "review" is an opinion or your ideas of what you thought after reading the book that is being discussed. In case you missed it the name of the book is written in BIG letters at the top of the page. The word "customer" means someone who has purchased the book and read it. I hope this helps you. In the future, please leave the reviews for the grown-ups. I am sure you can find proper places for you and your playmates to play your games using a computer, a tablet or a phone to find websites that are made for your games, but be sure and get your parent's permission first.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
REALLY? Someone DIED! And your just like, oh yeah go find a place with your PLAYMATES! Argh!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ambria... even though I hardly know you... I feel like I've known you all my life :) (I'm not sure if that made sense..) You made Karateclaw happy, and that makes me happy. Rest In Peace Ambria.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
–Speaks quietly.– Life is short. People don't realize what little time they have here until this happens... –He looks up to the sky.– Ambria, if you're up there now, looking down on us, please give Karateclaw courage. Help him cope. I don't know his real name, but still...let him be able to move on without forgetting you. –He pauses, then continues.– Also, if you're up there with Ashlyn and the little girl that needed a heart transplant, could you tell them Cricketwing and Furyheart say hi? Thanks. #T
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
~|In memory for Ambria Faynette. My rl gf. Died from f3 tornado in kansas. 1998-2012. I love u so much ambria. Rest in peace an in starclan.|~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im back darling