A 19th Century New Orleans “whodunit,” The Laced Chameleon is dramatic irony in the rich tradition of Peter Falk’s TV series, Columbo.

New Orleans native Mademoiselle Francesca Dumas is a kept woman. At age eighteen in the second year of the American Civil War, she is the concubine of a rich New Orleans banker, Joachim Buisson. Born a quadroon, Francesca leads a sheltered life of elegant jewels, gowns, lace, and lavish balls—until a bullet shatters her dream world.

An assassin murders “her man” as Francesca stood beside him among a throng gathered atop a Mississippi River levee on April 25, 1862. Bowed by Joachim’s body, rain-soaked and blood-spattered, she vows revenge. Francesca’s passionate desire for retribution drives her into a new life as a sleuth. Becoming a detective to solve a murder mystery is far from the role of women in 1862 New Orleans—especially a woman who perceives herself to be African American but appears to be white.

As Francesca’s investigation begins, the assassin kills two more people and kidnaps Francesca’s best friend, Emily. Driven to recover Emily and avenge Joachim, Francesca’s arduous mental and physical journey takes a circuitous route—far from a concubine’s life of extravagant balls, lace, and leisure. Amid the flowering of spring and early summer in New Orleans, she finds herself mired deep in the perilous abyss between Union, French, and Confederate spies.

Aboard mule-drawn streetcars, Francesca’s gumshoe work takes her through Vieux Carré, Tremé, and many famous city streets in search of the killer’s motive, means, and opportunity to commit mayhem. In her undercover role, she frequents Café du Monde, Antoine’s Restaurant, and the famous ballroom at the present-day Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Francesca gets help from three historic people of New Orleans; humanitarian Mother Henriette Delille, actress Sarah Butler, and Union spy John Mahan.

Can young rookie detective Francesca’s passion, determination, and wit overcome a kidnapper and three-time murderer?

A Note From Bob

In America, race matters. The artificial constructs of race, caste, and class have mattered for centuries and still matter today. Sex between white men and African, Native American, and mixed-race women produced off-springs known as mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons. Mulattos are likely to have as few as one or two white grandparents and an African or Native American parent. Quadroons have three white grandparents, while octoroons have seven white great-grandparents.

Mademoiselle Francesca Dumas was a quadroon. According to young and vivacious Francesca, “There are many rules in New Orleans about sex—written and unwritten. The rules apply to everyone—except white men.”

While miscegenation existed all over the South, arranged unions between white men and women of color existed in antebellum New Orleans society by contract in a recognized extralegal system called plaçage. Race, caste, and class are significant matters in Francesca’s life.

The rigid caste system into which Francesca Dumas was born in 1843 was an American institution a century before the United States Constitution was written. European Americans used skin color in the establishment of their caste system. For centuries, the ruling or dominant culture decided segregation of people into subordinate groups—whether by skin-color or some other basis such as religion or linage or whatever. A few examples are societies in China, Rwanda, South Africa, India, and Pakistan.

The caste system that had such a profound impact on Francesca’s American life is alive and well in twenty-first-century America.

Partial List of Nonfiction Characters Appearing in The Laced Chameleon

Benjamin, Judah P., US Senator; Confederate Secretary of State

Browne, Thomas, Owner of the Singer Sewing Machine Agency

Hildreth-Butler, Sarah, Actress, wife of General Butler

Butler, Andrew, Colonel, US Army; brother of General Butler

Butler, Benjamin F., Major General, US Army

Casanave, Pierre, Founder of Undertaking Service

Casanave, Peter, Son of Pierre, Undertaking Service

Cocks, Arianna*, Daughter of Annabelle

Cocks, Annabelle*, Daughter of John G. Cocks

Cocks, John G., New Orleans Judge

Cocks, Able*, Son of Annabelle

Corlin, Martha*, Confederate Sympathizer

Delille, Henriette, Founder and Mother Superior, Sisters of Holy Family

Dumas, Alexandre, Author of The Count of Monte Cristo

Foster, Thomas, Owner of a New Orleans slave sales depot

Heidiseck, Charles Camille, Owner of Heidiseck & Company Wines, Reims, France

Jobert, Rev. J.B., Pastor, St. Augustine Catholic Church

Lille, Sarpy, Officer, Union Bank of New Orleans

Lovell, Mansfield, Major General, Confederate States Army

Mahan, John, General Butler’s most trusted Spy

Nixon, James, Owner/Publisher, New Orleans Daily Crescent

Packwood, Theodore, Owner of Belle Chasse Plantation

Rusha, E.M., Owner of EM Rusha. Importer of Fine Wines & Liquors

Strong, George B., US Army, Major, General Butler’s Chief of Staff

Tunnard, William H., Confederate Army Sergeant, 3rd Louisiana Infantry Regiment

Zunts, James E., Investor and Co-owner of the City Hotel

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