RogerBW's Blog

The Ninth Daughter, Barbara Hamilton 24 February 2015

2009 historical mystery. In Boston in 1773, Abigail Adams (wife of lawyer and future president John Quincy Adams) tries to solve the murder of one woman and the disappearance of another.

Barbara Hamilton is a pen-name adopted by Barbara Hambly for this excursion into historical fiction, but in spite of the absence of magicians this is very clearly a Barbara Hambly book. OK, the good guys here are despised by the bad guys because they're pre-Revolutionary Americans rather than because they're wizards, but an awful lot of the familiar Hambly ideas are here, particularly the religiously-inspired nutters of the Church of No Redeeming Virtues. Abigail is drawn in to the investigation because the authorities are uninterested, being already reasonably sure that her husband John was responsible. But what evidence do they hold?

Hambly does resist the temptation to make all the revolutionaries good and all the British bad; both sides have a reasonable mixture of people, and one of the more interesting secondary characters is a British lieutenant who's clearly a practitioner of scientific investigation (if perhaps a little ahead of his time), and his fencing with Abigail as they both accept that preventing more murders is more important than either of their political goals provides one of the more pleasing motifs.

As with other recent Hambly, it's a very padded book, even at 368 pages, though here the padding is what seems like well-researched historical detail rather than invention. (A slave-owning Sam Adams seems like something of a misstep, though.) There's never any doubt as to who's historical and who's an invented character, and Hambly wisely gives the inventions most of the narrative (even if this does mean that Abigail speaks more with Lieutenant Coldstone than with her own husband).

In spite of all that period detail, though, there's an oddly twentieth-century sensibility to the book, reminiscent in some ways of Georgette Heyer's Cousin Kate (not, to my mind, one of her successes): these historical characters seem far too familiar with the idea and mindset of a compulsive killer, considering that the concept was not even codified before the intensive interest that followed the murders committed by Jack the Ripper more than a century after this book is set. The relationship between Abigail and Coldstone seems far too friendly, given the political situation, and another character reversal seems entirely too sudden.

At times the plot mechanisms show through, particularly when Abigail fails to examine what she knows is likely to be a vital piece of evidence for a couple of days, apparently for the sole reason that it would break the suspense if she were allowed to extract its clue too soon. There does come a point where someone is so achingly and obviously the Least Obvious Suspect that I found myself imploring Hambly not to make him the murderer. (I shan't say whether she did, and in any case it's all a little more complex than that.)

A theme emerges late in the book of the trouble caused by an unquestioned leader, whether that's the King in England, Sam Adams of the Sons of Liberty, or a charismatic preacher. I'd have liked to have seen more development of this, but it's only really touched on briefly.

Taken as a mystery I didn't find this particularly compelling, but I'd recommend it if you have an especial fascination with pre-Revolutionary America.

Followed by A Marked Man, though quite possibly not by me.

(This was a Requested Review: a loyal reader asked me for my thoughts on this book. An offer open to all: supply me with a book, and I'll either turn it down or review it.)

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