Benjamin January has lately returned to New Orleans from Paris, where he's made his home for the last 16 years. In Paris, January was a surgeon; in New Orleans, his life is constrained by a rigid set of rules that control his every move. He is known as a "free man of color," but in 1833, that freedom is tenuous at best.
January has found a position playing piano at the Salle d'Orleans, where the Blue Ribbon Ball of this year's Carnival caps the season's revelry. The Blue Ribbon Ball, in New Orleans's strict caste system, is the quadroon ball, where the light-skinned, beautiful daughters of colored society dance with their white "protectors" -- while their protectors' wives and families are at the subscription ball in the Théâtre next door. From the safety of his piano bench, January is able to watch and comment upon the goings-on. But that detachment doesn't last.
The most beautiful -- and the most poisonous -- belle of the ball, the infamous Angelique Crozat, has infuriated everyone present, from the young suitor whose stutter she has publicly mocked, to the girls whose dresses she has purposefully made somewhat less than beautiful -- including the widow of her late protector, who has violated every caste rule in order to confront her.
When Angelique is discovered, in a parlor of the Salle, strangled to death, January becomes embroiled in a pursuit of the killer -- only to discover that the authorities are investigating him. Now he must run for his life, and find the culprit before he is caught and enslaved -- or hung.
...Hambly puts together a fine story and creates fascinating three-dimensional characters....This novel is less a traditional "whodunit" and more of a historical novel in which a murder occurs....Benjamin January is a wonderful addition to mystery sleuths, and this novel contributes greatly to historical fiction. The characters, setting, plot, weave together to produce a satisfying and thought-provoking read.