Benjamin January made his debut in bestselling author Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color, a haunting mélange of history and mystery. Now he returns in another novel of greed, madness, and murder amid the dark shadows and dazzling society of old New Orleans, named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times.
The summer of 1833 has been one of brazen heat and brutal pestilence, as the city is stalked by Bronze John—the popular name for the deadly yellow fever epidemic that tests the healing skills of doctor and voodoo alike. Even as Benjamin January tends the dying at Charity Hospital during the steaming nights, he continues his work as a music teacher during the day.
When he is asked to pass a message from a runaway slave to the servant of one of his students, January finds himself swept into a tempest of lies, greed, and murder that rivals the storms battering New Orleans. And to find the truth he must risk his freedom...and his very life.
About the Author
Barbara Hambly is the author of The Emancipator’s Wife, a finalist for the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. She is also the author of Fever Season, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and seven acclaimed historical novels.
Read an Excerpt
In fever season, traffic in the streets was thin. Those who could afford to do so had left New Orleans with the ending of Lent; those who could not had all through the long summer hurried about their business as if Bronze John, as they called the sickness, were a creditor one could avoid if one kept off the streets.
Midday, the molten September heat raised steam from the water in the French town's cypress-lined gutters and the rain puddles in the soupy streets. Mephitic light filtered through clouds of steamboat soot from the levees and gave the town the look of a grimy but inexplicably pastel-walled hell. Only those whose errands were pressing walked the streets then.
So it took no great cleverness on Benjamin January's part to realize that he was being followed.
Charity Hospital, where he'd spent the night and all the morning among the dying, lay on the uptown side of Canal Street, the American side. It was against January's nature to spend more time on that side of town than was absolutely necessary, to say nothing of the fact that Americans seemed to regard all free persons of color as potential slaves, money on the hoof going to waste that could be going into their pockets in the big markets along Baronne and Levee Streets. Americans made no distinction, as the French were careful to do, between African blacksbe they slaves or freedmenand the free persons of color whose parents had been both colored and white. Not, January reflected wryly, that it made a great deal of difference in his case.
But even in fever season, when men and women, black and white and colored, were only hands to hold off Bronze John from one anotherto carry water and vinegar and saline draughts, to fan away the humming swarms of mosquitoes and flieshe felt uneasy uptown.
Maybe that was why he realized so quickly that someone was dogging his steps.
His head ached from twenty-four hours without sleep. His senses felt dulled, as if someone had carefully stuffed his skull with dirty lint soaked in the stinking fluids of the dying; his very bones weighed him down. His last patient that day had been a nine-year-old girl who'd walked the twelve streets to the hospital from the levee where she'd been selling oranges. Her mama, she said in English, before delirium claimed her, would whale her for not staying on to finish the day. The child had died before she could tell anyone who her mama was or where that lady could be found.
As of that morning, no newspaper in the town had yet admitted that there was an epidemic at all.
The fever had first come to New Orleans in January's sixteenth year. In those days you never heard English spoken at all, though the city already belonged to the United States. He'd been studying medicine then with Dr. Gomez and had followed his teacher on his rounds of the hospitals; it seemed to him now, twenty-four years later, that the ache of grief and pity never grew less. Nor did his fear of the fever itself.
He wasn't sure exactly what it was that made him realize he was being stalked.
A glimpse from the corner of his eye as he dodged across Jackson Street among the ambulance wagons, the produce carts, the drays of sugar and indigo on their way to the levee from the inland plantations along the lake. A horse lurched to a stop, tossed its head with an angry snort. A driver cursed in Spanish. Steps away, Freret Street lay deserted under the hot weight of brazen sky, but January knew he wasn't alone. He quickened his stride.
If he walked down Canal Street, among the hip-high weeds, strewn garbage, and dead dogs of what French and Americans alike called the "neutral ground," he would be spared at least some of the stenches of the cemeteries. There seething corpses lined the walls three-deep, like bales on the levee, waiting for tomb space and the men to bear them in. But though he was an accredited member of the Paris College of Surgeons who had practiced at the Hôtel Dieu in that city for six years, January was perfectly well aware that he looked like a field hand: six feet, three inches tall, powerfully built despite the dust of gray that now powdered his short-cropped hair, his skin as glossy black as his African father's had been. That was one reason why it was only in the fever season that he practiced medicine. The rest of the year he played piano to earn his bread. It was an injustice he'd accepted, upon his return to New Orleans from Paris, nearly a year ago.
And things had changed in the city since his departure in 1817.
So he followed Rue Villere downstream, past shabby cottages and grubby shacks in rank jungles of weed, the stench of untended privies, of gutters uncleaned for weeks, and of sties and coops, neglected by their owners, thick as fog around him. An unpaved path, mucky from the morning's rainstorm, led him toward the river.
He was definitely being followed. He didn't want to look back; he couldn't tell by whom.
Rue Douane, the first street of the French town itself, was usually alive with cart and foot traffic. Today, there were only two women in the faded calico of poverty, hurrying with bowed heads. Those, and the dead-carts that lurched toward the cemeteries with their stiffened cargoes wrapped in cheap Osnaburg sheets and their throbbing armies of attendant flies. Like the Americans uptown, the householders here burned piles of hair and hooves from the slaughteryards or smudges made up with gunpowder, to clear the disease-ridden miasma from the air. The smell was foulcharnel house and battlefield rolled into one. The Four Horsemen, January thought, coughing, would bear that smell on their wake when they reaped the plain of Armageddon with their swords.
He cut across Rue Douane midway between two streets, mud sucking his boots. Just before he sprang across the gutter he glanced back. He saw no one.
What do I do? he wondered. What do I do?
Table of Contents
From the Author
Since my college days (back in the late Mesozoic Era) I've wanted to do a mystery set in the antebellum South with a free black protagonist. Historical mysteries are mostly comedies of manners--investigations of the ins and outs of the society in which they take place--and the artificiality of that milieu fascinated me. I deliberately steered clear of the Civil War and the era immediately preceding it because a) a lot of other people have done it better than I could and b) because the issues, and the people, were very different even a generation earlier. It mokes it harder to research--very little is done about that changeover generation between Jeffersonian and Jacksonian America--but the more I study, the more fascinating stuff I find. It's a goldmine for a writer.
One of the things I enjoy most about the Benjamin January series is the continuing cast of characters. Family and friends are a major subtheme of the books: you need your family. You need your friends. After Benjamin s wife dies he returns to New Orleans, a city in which he will automatically become a non-person and will be in periodic danger of enslavement, because his family is there and in his grief and his pain he cannot survive without them. This is not only an emotional truth in all times and places, but very typical of the society about which I'm writing. To the antebellum New Orleans Creoles, both white and black, family was everything.
I must say I love writing Ben's mother. She's an absolutely horrible woman, snobbish and greedy and self-centered, but she's a wonderful mechanism to advance plots by giving the reader whole reams of Information in the form ofspiteful gossip. In fact I love writing about most of those people--Ben's sisters, and his worthless white pal Hannibal, and Lieutenant Shaw. I'll occasionally use historical characters in the books, like Madame Lalaurie or John Davis, the man who owned the Orleans Ballroom, and I try to get those people as accurately as I can, from what I can learn of them. There was no lack of fascinating people running around New Orleans in that era. About some of them. like the voodoo queen Marie Laveau, it's almost impossible to find "hard" information--only rumors and traditions and tales that have been colored by the prejudice or political correctness of the tellers.
I try, too, to portray what the city must have been like, what people must have been like. New Orleans fascinates me because there were literally four separate social systems--white Creoles, white Americans, mixed-race free colored, and black slaves--living in the same few square miles of territory and none of them dealing with the others unless absolutely necessary. The concept of solidarity between the free colored and the blacks was almost unheard-of: the free colored, for the most part, identified with the white Creoles, the people who had power and money. January is an interesting character to me precisely because he was raised with a French Creole outlook, because he has the outlook of an educated European. He's very much a man between two worlds, on outsider among his own people.
For most of my life I've been a student of history, although I've had a fairly long career as a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy before I began writing historical mysteries. My degree is in Medieval History, something I've seldom used in any of my writing: basically what I learned was how to research, and how to set up a non-industrial society. From the time I was five I knew that I wanted to write, and I've tried to do at least a little of the things I write about: hand-to-hand combat, riding a horse, loading black powder weapons. dancing, wearing a corset. My love of history was one of the things that drew me to New Orleans for the first time, though I fell in love with the city--and with my husband, whom I met there--and ended up living in New Orleans half-time for nearly three years.
I feel like I have so much more to learn.
About myself I will just say that I was born In California, raised here, and currently live in Los Angeles with my husband, two dogs, two cats, and two lizards. Like Benjamin, I treasure my family and my friends. In the course of getting my degree in Medieval History I spent a year at the University of Bordeaux in the early seventies, and in connection with writing a couple of historical vampire thrillers I've traveled through Europe learning that there are no back-alleys in the old part of Vienna (oops, I guess I'll have to re-write that back-alley scene) and that the sunlight in Istanbul is not like light anywhere else that I've seen.
My husband, who is a science fiction writer, and I go back to New Orleans a few, times a year. Even in the eighteenth century it was remarked on that once someone had lived there, the city would draw them back.
I hope to go on writing about that town for a very long time.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fever Season by Barbara Hambly is the second book in the Benjamin January series. Benjamin is finally becoming comfortable in his hometown of New Orleans in 1833, returning after a sixteen-year absence and recovering from the events of the previous book, A Free Man of Color. Cholera has settled into the city for the summer, leaving it largely abandoned and his work as a musician in little need, so he's working at the local hospital caring for the many sick and dying from the dread illness known as Bronze John. When a runaway slave named Cora asks for his help getting a message to her lover, Benjamin has no idea what it will do to his life. When Cora's owner is found dead and she is accused of poisoning him and attempting to kill his wife the same way, Benjamin begins trying to discover the truth, but that journey leads him to discover that many slaves and free people of color are disappearing from the city. Eventually that discovery will destroy his reputation and put his life in grave danger. Hambly has recreated the city of New Orleans in all of its complex glory. Benjamin is a hero perfect for his city; he is tortured by his lost love and while he hates how he must never look a white man in the eyes here and is always in fear of losing his freedom, he can't bring himself to leave the city of his birth. Hambly does something completely unexpected in this sequel; she takes all control away from our hero. As the whispering campaign takes away Benjamin's livelihood and reputation, there is little he can do against the accusations, and when he finally takes action, the consequences nearly takes his life. Hambly places Benjamin in true historical events of the city, and retells a controversial and fascinating story through our hero's eyes. By pulling the rug out from under Benjamin so completely, she solidifies readers' affection for him. It's a stunning and completely successful move, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
I was eager to read this second book in the Benjamin January series, and it did not disappoint; indeed, I found myself drawn into the story more quickly than by the previous volume in the series, "A Free Man of Color." Hambly has done her homework and is skilled at bringing her setting to life; you can almost feel the heat and humidity, smell the stench of death in the yellow fever hospitals, experience the sting of prejudice and injustice. The mystery itself is sophisticated and thoroughly linked to the historical setting and some real people who lived in New Orleans at that time.
Masterfully crafted, the events follow necessities imposed by the stratification of pre-Civil War New Orleans' society. Benjamin January ends up detective because he is a free man of color, and cannot count on the white authorities. Following disappearances, a murder that is not what it seems, and the strange behavior of one of the most powerful women in the city, January risks his life and his freedom to find answers.Thematically, and dramatically focusing on the tenuous nature of freedom for colored people, Hambly creates a heartbreaking world that manages to be as hopeful, cruel, inexplicable and odd as the human beings who occupy it. Emphasis on active cruelty as well as casual disdain, but some nice looks at love and hope too.