A Free Man of Color

A Free Man of Color

3.9 20
by Barbara Hambly

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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…  See more details below


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....

From the Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

J. Ashley
...Hambly puts together a fine story and creates fascinating three-dimensional characters....This novel is less a traditional "whodunit" and more of a historical novel in which a murder occurs....Benjamin January is a wonderful addition to mystery sleuths, and this novel contributes greatly to historical fiction. The characters, setting, plot, weave together to produce a satisfying and thought-provoking read.
Mystery Magazine Online
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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 detailfashion, 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. (June)
VOYA - Richard Gercken
Set in early nineteenth-century New Orleans, this murder mystery follows Benjamin Janvier, musician and free man of color, as he seeks the murder of Angelique, mistress of the husband of a white pupil he fondly remembers. Unfortunately, his search is slow and mostly devoid of the suspense suggested by the jacket illustration. The only thing that happens quickly in this novel is the introduction of the characters: fourteen in the first chapter, sixteen more in the second. Most of them remain names. The only two who come alive, police lieutenant Abishag Shaw and Benjamin's mother Livia, are in too few scenes. Hambly, a writer of intelligence, is fascinated by this world of kept women (placées) and its refined racial distinctions. The atmosphere is rich but marred by an excess of writerly writing: "the primal ocean of her hair," "pomegranate with rage," "the long fjords of his retreating hair line." Only especially interested young readers who read well will stay with this book. Even the jacket, title, and type will have little appeal for our audience. This novel is for adults with lots of time who need a new mystery romance with an unusual twist. VOYA Codes: 2Q 2P S (Better editing or work by the author might have warranted a 3Q, For the YA with a special interest in the subject, Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
Library Journal
With this historical novel, Hambly departs from her usual work in the sf/fantasy genre (e.g., Traveling with the Dead, LJ 8/95). Her new work is set in 19th-century Louisiana Creole society, where it was customary for a man to have a wife and also to keep a mistress in her own house. Benjamin January, a free Creole with dark brown skin, has returned to this society after living in Paris for more than a decade. 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 with the help of his sisters and a host of other colorful characters he encounters on the run. The result is a complicated mystery that could have used more romantic involvement. Recommended for larger libraries.Shirley Coleman, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., Mich.
Kirkus Reviews
Once again exercising her talent for goldstained description, Hambly moves from a stylish fin de siècle tale of Continental vampirism (Traveling with the Dead, 1995) to an equally stylish romantic suspenser set in New Orleans.

The author focuses on the delicate, twilit world of color in New Orleans in the 1830s, striving to capture both the city's exotic strangeness and an absolute sense of physical reality. Despite rapt storytelling, though, Hambly's prose shows less care than her research, being replete with tired phrases ("crimson with rage," etc.). After 16 years abroad, widower Benjamin January, a very dark Creole, returns from Paris having earned his degree as a physician and, for Carnival, takes up playing piano in the band for the Blue Ribbon Ball at the Salle d'Orleans. This is the ball at which white gentlemen meet their mistresses of various skin shades, having parked their wives at the nearby Théâtre d'Orleans. When Benjamin spots a former piano student, the virtuous, newly widowed, pure white Madame Madeleine Trepagier (née Dubonnet), at the wrong ball, he tries to save her from disgrace. She's there to recover her family jewels from the city's worst, most malicious woman of color, Angelique Crozat, mistress of the late Armand Trepagier. But Angelique is strangled, robbed, and stuffed into a closet before Madeleine can talk with her. The murder investigation plunges us into the tangled nature of race relations in New Orleans, made even more complex by the fact that the free colored folk there now have to deal with the recently arrived imperial Americans, who don't recognize (as the French, the founders of the city, did) a colored entitlement to civil rights. What does it mean that the dead Angelique was wearing Madeleine's own handsewn white dress when she died?

A sharp portrait of curiously nuanced class divisions transforms Hambly's latest into something far more than the modest melodrama it might otherwise have been.

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The ochre stucco cottage on Rue Burgundy was silent when January reached it. It was one of a row of four. He listened for a moment at the closed shutters of each of its two front rooms, then edged his way down the muddy slot between the closely set walls of the houses to the yard, where he had to turn sideways and duck to enter the gate. The shutters there were closed as well. The yard boasted a privy, a brick kitchen, and a garçonnière above it.

When first he had lived there, his sister had occupied the rear bedroom, his mother the front, the two parlors--one behind the other--being used for the entertainment of St.-Denis Janvier. Although he was only nine years old, Benjamin had slept from the first in the garçonnière, waiting until the house lights were put out and then climbing down the rickety twist of the outside stair to run with Olympe and Will Pavegeau and Nic Gignac on their midnight adventures. He smiled, recalling the white glint of Olympe's eyes as she dared them to follow her to the cemetery, or to the slave dances out on Bayou St. John.

His younger sister--his full sister--had been a skinny girl then, like a black spider in a raggedy blue-and-red skirt and a calico blouse a slave woman would have scorned to wear. Having a back room with access to the yard hadmade it easy for her to slip out, though he suspected that if she'd been locked in a dungeon, Olympe would still have managed to get free.

Olympe had been fifteen the year of Dominique's birth. The two girls had shared that rear chamber for only a year. Then Dominique had occupied it alone, a luxury for a little girl growing up. But then, Dominique had always been her mother's princess, her father's pride.

Presumably Dominique had occupied the room until Henri Viellard had come into her life when she was sixteen. By that time St.-Denis Janvier was dead, leaving his mistress comfortably off, and Livia Janvier had married a cabinetmaker, Christophe Levesque, who had died a few years ago. The rear room that had been Olympe's, then Dominique's, had been for a short spell Levesque's workshop. Now it was shut up, though Minou was of the opinion that her mother should take a lover.

January stepped to the long opening and drew back one leaf of the green shutters, listening at the slats of the jalousie for his mother's soft, even breath.

He heard nothing. Quietly, he lifted the latch, pushed the jalousie inward. The room was empty, ghostly with dust. He crossed to the door of his mother's bedroom, which stood half-slid back into its socket. Slatted light leaked through the louvers of the doors to the street. The gaily patterned coverlet was thrown back in a snowstorm of clean white sheets. Two butter-colored cats--Les Mesdames--dozed, paws tucked, on the end of the bed, opening their golden eyes only long enough to give him the sort of gaze high-bred Creole ladies generally reserved for drunken keelboat men sleeping in their own vomit in the gutters of the Rue Bourbon. There was water in the washbowl and a robe of heavy green chintz lay draped over the cane-bottomed chair. The smell of coffee hung in the air, a few hours old.

Euphrasie Dreuze, or one of her friends, he thought. They had come to her for comfort, and Livia Janvier Levesque had gone.

January crossed the yard again, his black leather music satchel under one arm. There was still fire in the kitchen stove, banked but emitting warmth. The big enamel coffeepot at the back contained several cups' worth. He poured himself some and carried it up the twisting steps and drank it as he changed his clothes and ate the beignets and pastry he'd cadged from the ballroom tables in the course of the night. Half his gleanings he'd left at Hannibal's narrow attic, stowed under a tin pot to keep the rats out of it, though he suspected the minute he was gone one or another of the girls who worked cribs in the building would steal it, as they stole Hannibal's medicine, his laudanum, and every cent he ever had in his pockets.

Before eating he knelt on the floor beside his bed and took from his pocket the rosary he'd had from his childhood--cheap blue glass beads, a crucifix of cut steel--and told over the swift decades of prayers for the soul of Angelique Crozat. She had been, by his own experience and that of everyone he'd talked to, a thoroughly detestable woman, but only God could know and judge. Wherever she was, she had died unconfessed and would need the prayers. They were little enough to give.


From the Paperback edition.

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Free Man of Color 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a very well-written historical mystery. It starts a little slow, and it's difficult keeping all the names of the characters straight since there are so many and the names are quite French and different than what most are used to. But the story is extremely well-researched. It's easy to see that this author is in love with her era and her place of choice (New Orleans in 1833). This is a lush, haunting novel like New Orleans itself. The time of the story is Mardi Gras week and Ms. Hambly deftly describes all the decadent pleasures, glittery ballrooms and the very complicated caste system of old New Orleans. The hero in the book is Benjamin January, a free man of colour who makes his living by playing the piano even though he is a trained surgeon. January was born in New Orleans and had moved to France at the age of 16 where he studied to be a surgeon. He made a life for himself there, but his wife dies of a fever, so he heads back home to be with his family. He gets thrown into a messy murder that happens at one of the dances he is playing at. There are many twists and turns in the plots, and the finale I'm sure will shock you, as it shocked me. The book starts slow but builds up momentum the further along the story goes. It's a stunner!
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the most educational and thrilling books to date. Benjamin is one of my favorite protagonists because of this book, and the descriptions, movie-like atmosphere, feel of the weather, the times, the smell of the food... made me feel like I was right there with the main character. This book is unbelievable. This novel should be a reading requirement in African American History classes in universities. I have learned more about the time period than that of any textbook. My mother read this, passed it on to me, now I shall pass it on. I look forward to more from Ms. Barbara Hambly, and hopefully having it hit the big screen.
MaBrownWI More than 1 year ago
The first of a series of mysteries set in 1830s New Orleans, this book is a must read for anyone who enjoyed Cane River and is interested in the social/racial hierarchy and customs in and about New Orleans during that time period. It is an easy, suspenseful, fascinating read. I hope the sequels are as good!
merrycoz More than 1 year ago
Interesting as a mystery; and more interesting as a richly detailed historical novel. Benjamin January is "colored," in the language of the day; and Hambly never lets us forget that, since January can't. A Free Man of Color gives readers a wonderful sense of the complexities of January's position and of the ways in which people react to him according to their own race. The series offers a wonderful view into a maddeningly racist, sexist, xenophobic, ethnocentric, graceful, vulgar, energetic period in American history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent read. The character, Ben January, is someone with whom you might like to have a discussion. If you are interested in New Orleans 1830s history, or life in that time setting as a subject, then, this book fills in some missing pieces regarding blacks, the law, slavery, plantations, and human nature. You will want to read the series – starting with this book. The series takes Ben on other mysteries, and you will learn more about his life, family, and friends. If you know the French language and some Latin or Greek, you will fit right in. Thanks to the author, Barbara Hambly for a great work of historical mystery/fiction!
Omnivorous_Reader More than 1 year ago
Benjamin January was born a slave in Louisiana, but through his mother's protector, was educated as a physician and exquisite musician. He had moved to Paris and married, but returned to New Orleans when his wife died of the scourge of typhoid. Upon returning he saw New Orleans with fresh eyes and in pursuit of crimes and mysteries with the local police chief intelligent but low-born, Abishag Shaw, he can move seamlessly between all the complex layers of Orleans society. Voo-doo, French influence, pre-civil war tensions, the sultry, stifling summers- are all beautifully intertwined with a psychological mystery. This book is a masterpiece with more superb mysteries to follow in the series.
Anonymous 4 months ago
I really want this book because it gives a good message. So far the message is ti love where you are headed
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goldieinaz More than 1 year ago
I have begun reading this book twice, and twice I have put it down. So many characters, and not going anywhere. I gave it a rating of three because I am going to try reading it again in a couple of months.