Mystery in Old New Orleans

World-building is Barbara Hambly's life passion. For genre fiction fans, the term describes the feat of inventing a convincing universe, and given her 30-plus published works, you could call the Southern California native a master architect. Sword and sorcery sagas, vampire tales, "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" novels, Hambly's done it all.

June's "Die Upon a Kiss" (Bantam) is the fifth installment in Hambly's latest venture, the subgenre sometimes dubbed "history mystery." Her sleuth, doctor and pianist Benjamin January, is a free black man in pre-Civil War New Orleans, where freedom papers are often scant protection. One series entry has been listed as a New York Times Notable Book. Hambly spoke with us about the challenges and delights of her craft.

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What's your attraction to otherworldly genres?

It's like time travel. It's putting myself into these worlds and trying to go to Disneyland. The fun is getting the picture as accurately as possible: the technology, what they wear and eat. I may be the only "Star Wars" writer who's talked about the cuisine.

Why New Orleans?

I wanted to do a mystery in the antebellum South. New Orleans is ideal because you had the Spanish empire breaking up and all that money up for grabs. There was tension between the French and the Americans, and free people of color didn't know how to preserve their power. There was no way they could have. It was a very insecure situation.

Any parallels between Benjamin January's world and L.A.?

Like New Orleans in the 1830s, Los Angeles is a town with a lot of money and tremendous social tensions. For both, appearance is critical--the way you appear and who you know will frequently get you farther than what you actually can do.

Why make your hero a former slave?

To watch a heroic man try to accomplish good from a tightly circumscribed position. The fascination is watching him outwit his situation. January is investigating specific cases of injustice, but he knows he's surrounded by general injustice about which he can do nothing.

You're a white female writing about a black male.

The critics have been wonderful, including a number of black critics. Some people doing marketing have said, "She's not black, we won't promote these books." Since I'm not black, I can't pass judgment on people who've made this decision. I do the best I can for a subject that calls to me. To [address] that monstrous an injustice [slavery], I'm going to do it as accurately as I can.

Tell us about your research methods.

I go to New Orleans several times a year. There's a wonderful organization called the Historic New Orleans Collection in the French Quarter. I've had involvement with re-creationists, such as a house in New Orleans where there are cooking demonstrations. I also have a black belt in karate, and that taught me to write a fight scene.

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