A lush and haunting novel of a city steeped in decadent pleasures . . . and of a man, proud and defiant, caught in a web of murder and betrayal.
It is 1833. In the midst of Mardi Gras, Benjamin January, a Creole physician and music teacher, is playing piano at the Salle d'Orleans when the evenings festivities are interrupted—by murder.
Ravishing Angelique Crozat, a notorious octoroon who travels in the city's finest company, has been strangled to death. With the authorities reluctant to become involved, Ben begins his own inquiry, which will take him through the seamy haunts of riverboatmen and into the huts of voodoo-worshipping slaves.
But soon the eyes of suspicion turn toward Ben—for, black as the slave who fathered him, this free man of color is still the perfect scapegoat. . . .
Praise for A Free Man of Color
“A smashing debut. Rich and exciting with both substance and spice.”—Star Tribune, Minneapolis
“A sparkling gem.”—King Features Syndicate
“An astonishing tour de force.”—Margaret Maron
“Superb.”—Drood Review of Mystery
“A darned good murder mystery.”—USA Today
In her breakout from fantasy and Star Wars novels, Hambly (Mother of Winter) chronicles the adventures of piano teacher and surgeon Ben January, a free man of color. The setting, 1833 New Orleans, is vivid and ornate. Riverboat dandies and roughshod frontiermen rub elbows with dueling gentlemen of the landed aristocracy as their splendidly gowned wives and colored mistresses celebrate Mardi Gras, oblivious to the squalor, fever and plague around them. Social and sexual mores are lax. Racial bigotry is the norm in a society that classifies people according to an elaborate scale of color and bloodline (octoroon, quadroon, musterfino, etc.). The plot is a whodunit involving the murder of Angelique Crozat, a beautiful but grasping octoroon who was the ex-mistress of a recently deceased Creole (white) planter. Back home after 16 years in Paris, January intervenes on behalf of Madeleine Dubonnet, a former piano student recently widowed by Arnaud Trepagier, the murdered woman's former patron. For his trouble, the ebony-skinned January becomes an unwitting scapegoat of the influential white suspects. Menaced by ruthless cutthroats, he must risk his freedom to absolve himself. Hambly pays rich attention to period detail--fashion, food, manners, music and voodoo. Her characters, however, speak and think with decidedly modern accents, a departure from period verisimilitude that's easily justified on grounds of rhythm and pace. The tale lacks some of the moral gravity implied by the title, but it works as an escapist entertainment flavored liberally with the sights, textures, sounds and tastes of a decadent city in a distant time.
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A Free Man of Color
Benjamin January and his 1830’s New Orleans are portrayed vividly in this intriguing mystery by Barbara Hambly. The strict rules, intricacies, and hierarchies of black-colored-American-French-Creole-voodoo societies are carefully explained. Hambly is a wonderful writer who weaves well -researched history of time, place, culture, and character into her fascinating mystery.
Authentic & entertaining
As an avid reader of historical mysteries, I highly recommend the Benjamin January series. It is fastidiously researched and full of realistic characters. The stories are set in 1830s New Orleans with the protagonist being a freed slave. He has access to the high circles of Creole society as a pianist who plays their balls & instructs their children. Yet he also lives in the world of the placées, the quadroon & octroon mistresses to the Creole men, through his mother & half-sister, and is acquainted with the world of voodoo through his full sister. The series has unique plots that don't disappoint.