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A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

A Free Man of Color (1997)

by Barbara Hambly

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Benjamin January (1)

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7352612,706 (3.91)2 / 144
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I found this a very satisfying period murder mystery set in and around New Orleans in 1833. It’s a couple of decades after the Louisiana Purchase and thirty years before the American Civil War, and the precarious position of a free but dark-skinned colored man in this time and place is made starkly clear. We’re also shown the conflict between the members of a highly stylized Creole culture and the relative new-comers, the uncouth and mercenary “Americans” or “Kaintucks.” Hambly’s historian credentials give the setting a rock-solid credibility. Her well-honed storytelling skill brings the characters to life and makes their story riveting.

The murder victim is a manipulative young freeborn “octoroon,” a light-skinned colored girl of the sort prized as mistresses by the Creole elite. The Kaintuck police officer investigating the case encounters resistance from various quarters when suspicion points to a young white man – much to the disgust of protagonist Benjamin January, a slave-born but Paris-educated free man of color. Disgusted though he is, January probably would not have risked himself by pursuing the case if the suspicion had not been transferred to him. Ultimately he risks both life and liberty to bring about a resolution and clear his name. The story is nail-bitingly tense in more than one place.

I found the solution of the mystery to be satisfyingly logical. Some of the clues were obscure enough to make a reader-solution unlikely, but nothing worse than is common in a genre that considers itself a failure if the reader guesses the ending. I’ve never been inclined to try very hard to second-guess an author in any case. When I read a good book I tend to surrender myself to it. Let the author take me for a ride; that’s what I came for. And “A Free Man of Color” is a darned good ride.

Some people may question the “right” of a white woman to write a story about the experience of black and colored people. And of course, I’m another white woman reviewing it. I would suggest that people – black people and white people – should read it before making a judgement. There is nothing over-simplified or sanitized, here. The characters (of all colors) and their motivations are complex and often morally ambiguous. Ms Hambly has clearly done her research, and the insight she brings to this highly race/color/class-conscious society has the combined power of her training as a historian and her ability as a fiction writer to put herself into characters’ heads. In creating Benjamin January, a black man with one white grandparent, who grew up in this culture and then left it in his twenties to return as a mature adult, Hambly has designed a character who can see the culture from both the inside and the outside and is therefore well positioned to mirror her insight. ( )
  Carol_W | Feb 23, 2016 |
My book club selection for this month.

Previously (and many years ago) I'd read a few of Hambly's early fantasy books, and not been overly impressed - they were OK, but didn't transcend any of the genre standards. After reading 'A Free Man of Color' at a friend's recommendation, I can confirm that yes, Hambly definitely improved over time.

Aside from a few suggestions that voodoo curses and/or protective charms may be efficacious, the book does not have fantasy elements - it's historical fiction. Benjamin January is the titular 'free man of color.' Of African heritage and raised in New Orleans, he is both a trained surgeon and an accomplished musician. Recently returned to his home town, after having spent the past few years in France, where he was accorded a certain degree of respect, he's experiencing a great deal of 'culture shock' in adjusting to the inferior status he holds in New Orleans. And the racism in Louisiana is getting worse, as the region's French culture is diluted by an influx of boorish men with an 'American' identity and an assumption that anyone with dark skin deserves nothing more than to be enslaved.

The reader has to ask why January would stay in such an inhospitable environment. Hambly strives to answer the question: January is fleeing his grief over the death of his wife; he feels an obligation to friends and family; he has a sense of 'belonging' and 'home' tied to New Orleans. I didn't find all these reasons fully convincing. I myself would've been outta there in a hot second. But I could accept that someone else might feel differently, and might've behaved as January does here.

The plot itself is a standard mystery/investigation: During a courtesans' ball, a woman is found murdered. As the victim was a woman of mixed race, and of 'low moral standing' to boot, the first reaction is to sweep the incident under the closest convenient rug. Benjamin January, with an innate sense of justice, doesn't allow that to happen. However, soon afterwards he realizes that his attempt to do the right things may not have been in his self-interest. He was one of the last people to see the victim alive, and it'd be far easier to pin the crime on a black man than to investigate a crime which was probably committed by a white man, and one likely highly placed in society, at that. January's only hope to avoid being arrested may be to try to solve the crime himself, in order to clear his name.

But as he looks into what may have happened and who may have had a grudge against this woman, things only get more complicated. For she wasn't a particularly nice person, and the list of people who may have held something against her only gets longer, the more details emerge...

The solid mystery plot is raised from 3 to 4 stars by the meticulous and well-incorporated historical and social details; which make for fascinating reading - and also by the satisfying yet bittersweet ending. There were several 'easy outs' the author could have taken in finishing up the story - and she opted for none of them, resulting in a much better book than this might've been.

I'd definitely read more in this series. ( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
2015 Reading Challenge: A book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit
  LaMala | Jun 7, 2015 |
Story was a little draggy and not really my cup of tea, but it was a good plot, good main character and interesting look at the 1830's in New Orleans and the ridiculous caste system in place which depended on how much white blood a person had. ( )
  AliceAnna | Aug 10, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Hamblyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Seder, JasonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Had Cardinal Richelieu not assaulted the Mohican Princess, thrusting her up against the brick wall of the carriageway and forcing her mouth with his kisses, Benjamin January probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss later on.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553575260, Mass Market Paperback)

In Barbara Hambly's rich and poignant thriller, it's 1833 and Ben January--a man of mixed blood making his living as a musician because he's not allowed to practice surgery--is back home in New Orleans after years of freedom in Paris. Trying to walk a caste line more complicated than India's, January risks his precarious position to investigate the killing of a young woman who--like his own younger, lighter half-sister--is the mistress of a wealthy white man. What has changed most in New Orleans while Ben was away is the influence of the white Americans: rough, ignorant, instinctively racist. Only one of these--a policeman named Abishag Shaw--seems to understand that January is at least as smart and valuable as he is, and even he at times appears to be ready to side with the white majority and pin the crime on Ben.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:51 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"A romantic suspense novel set in 19th century New Orleans. 'Benjamin January, a free Creole with dark brown skin, has returned to this society after living in Paris for more than a decde. He is trained as a surgeon, but in Louisiana, he makes his living playing the piano. Soon he is the main suspect in the death of a wealthy man's young mistress, found murdered at a ball. January spends the rest of the book gathering evidence in his defense.'" Libr J. "A few suspenseful moments not-withstanding, this isn't an action-packed or suspenseful whodunit. Rather, it's a richly detailed, telling portrait of an intricately structured racial hierarchy." Booklist.… (more)

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