A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January Series #1)

A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January Series #1)

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 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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553575262
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/01/1998
Series: Benjamin January Series , #1
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 252,484
Product dimensions: 4.18(w) x 6.85(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Barbara Hambly is the author of Patriot Hearts and 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 Yearand the acclaimed historical Benjamin January series, including the novels A Free Man of Color and Sold Down the River. She lives in California.

Read an Excerpt

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.

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.

—Barbara Hambly

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Free Man of Color 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 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 3 months ago
cmbohn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Benjamin January is a colored man, a griffe. In his day, that meant he was 3/4 black, with a black father and a mulatto mother. His sister is a quadroon - 3/4 white. In New Orleans, pre-Civil War, that matters. Everything about race, and even about nationality, matters a lot. It defines who you are and what opportunities are open to you. Benjamin is a musician, but he also trained as a surgeon in Paris. He lived there with his wife for several years, but after her death, he returns to his hometown.Much has changed since he has been gone. Suddenly the Americans are moving in. The British and French, which didn't much get along with each other but at least understood 'the custom of the country,' are being bought out by brash new Americans who only understand two things - money, and the color of your skin. Benjamin as a colored man cannot find work as a surgeon, only as a musician. He's playing the quadroon ball during Mardi Gras when one of the women is found murdered. He knows the owner of the hotel is not about to call in the police to investigate. After all, the woman is basically a courtesan, and the suspects are powerful and wealthy white men. But Benjamin is so sick of this kind of prejudice that he begins to ask questions himself. Next thing he knows, the police have been happy to investigate a much less tricky suspect - him.I really enjoyed this book. Benjamin is a great character with a complicated background. Being away from home so much gives his a different perspective on things that the other characters take for granted. I realized that this was a time period I knew practically nothing about, but certainly a place I'd love to read about again. 5 stars.
BellaMiaow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Historical fiction isn't my favorite genre, but I'm much more willing to read it when it's mixed with mystery. I've read some of Hambly's work before and know her to be a fine writer, and I'd read good reviews of this series by people I respect, so I decided to give it a whirl.I suppose all the descriptions of people's clothing would have mattered much more to someone who cared about such things, but I do realize that they were important in the context of the story. Personally, I was relieved when the main character went on a journey! I would have been happier had his medical skills been utilized more frequently than they were, but I suppose his experiences were fairly true to life for a "colored" man of his time.I did learn quite a lot—things that I intend to verify in non-fiction sources shortly. The information about the black code, for instance, and the explanation of the distinction between "black" and "colored" people seemed too precise to be fabricated. I knew, too, that Louisiana is the only U.S. state whose laws are based on French rather than English common law, which seemed silly to me. Why wouldn't they go with the standard everyone else used? After reading this novel, I'm starting to realize that there may have been rights given to citizens under French law that were lost under English law.I'm not sure as to whether or not I'll go forward in the series, as I'm not sure that I can handle the unhappiness I can see foreshadowed even in some of the titles. However, I will say that this volume is well-written and well-plotted. I certainly didn't guess who the killer was or why the murder was committed before the big reveal, and that was a pleasant change!
wagner.sarah35 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A Free Man of Color is a very descriptive novel, the sights and sounds of 19th Century New Orleans being described in great detail. This makes for a very rich text, but I found it personally difficult to read at times. As a reader, I am much more interested in the characters and their development than the setting. Barbara Hambly's novel does have some very interesting characters, including the musician and surgeon Benjamin January, a free man of color, who has just returned to New Orleans after 16 years in Paris. The author clearly researched the place and time very well, providing details on New Orleans' social castes and their interactions. Overall, A Free Man of Color was a good read, but sometimes difficult to get through and I am not certain I will read more in the series.
Kirconnell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is 1830's New Orleans and Benjamin January has returned home from France after the death of his wife. Unfortunately he has forgotten how very different attitudes toward blacks are in the Americas. Hambly describes the extensive caste system arrising from interracial relations with great sensitivity and attention to detail. I was also impressed by her descriptions of New Orleans and Louisiana in this historical period. You can smell the sweetness of honeysuckle and jasmine as well as the less savory smells of the slums. At quiet times I could almost feel as if I was walking the streets with Ben. Now, that is good writing. The plot itself is a well written mystery involving intrigue, deception, and murder with a twist at the end. Recommended.
DeltaQueen50 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After reading the historical mystery, A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly, I was of two minds about this book. Part of me was disappointed in the overall slowness of how the story developed. For a relatively short book (311 pages), it read as a much longer one. Set in New Orleans in 1833, the author painstakingly set the scene and put a lot of effort into our understanding of the caste system, based on color, that existed in those days. This is a first book in a series, so there were quite a few characters to be introduced and placed in the story. The main character, Benjamin January, is a likeable, competent hero, and I found most of the secondary characters appealing as well.About halfway through the book, the story did pick up and I got more involved in the actual mystery. The ending was satisfactory and wrapped up most of the story lines. Through the whole book, however, I always felt that New Orleans itself was the author¿s main focus and the mystery was secondary. I will definitely try the second book in this series in the hope that the author takes as much time to flesh out the characters as she did in this book with the setting. In Ben January, a free black man, trained as a surgeon and working as a musician, she has a character worth developing. This author is great at delivering the history, I also hope that she delivers on the mystery next time as well.
richardderus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first Benjamin January/Javier mystery set in 1833 New Orleans and featuring a black musician/doctor as our POV character/sleuth.The backstory of this mystery is, in my observation, more interesting than the mystery to be solved. I wasn't able to get into the book on first read, and made it to chapter 3 before shelving it. I re-tried the story, and got all the way through this time. It's a very evocative piece of writing, it's got a lot of characters whose interactions are very interesting, and in the end I was gruntled enough to give it three stars.What I found irksome was the mystery itself. The sleuth's reasons for investigating the murder are, in theory, the strongest possible. Why then was I so indifferent to the crime and the eventual punishment? Because I don't think the author was fully engaged with that aspect of the story. It's not that it felt perfunctory, exactly, but it felt...extraneous...like she put it in so she'd have a reason to tell us a story in this setting.Since it's the first of a series, I might pick up the next and see if there's some change that could make me follow the rest...but frankly, it's low on my priority list. Check back in 2013 or so (assuming the world doesn't end in 2012).Neutral response...hazard at your own risk, historical fans.
cbl_tn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
New Orleans, 1833. African American musician and ex-physician Benjamin January discovers a woman's murdered body at one of the quadroon balls leading up to Mardi Gras. January was one of the last people to see her alive. He would prefer not to be involved at all, but since pinning the murder on January would solve a lot of problems for the white authorities, he must find the real murderer to keep himself from being hanged for it. His hunt for the murderer endangers both his freedom and his life.This first book in Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series was educational as well as entertaining. It was interesting to read about the caste structure in antebellum New Orleans, and the disruption caused by the encroachment of Americans and their value system. There was a surprising plot twist at the end that seemed out of place for 1833, and it caused me to lower my rating. I still enjoyed the book, though, and I've added the next one to my reading wish list.
Jim53 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked this one up because I had snagged the sequel, Fever Season, at library book sale. Set in New Orleans in the 1830s, it features Benjamin January, who is three-fourths black, which differentiates him from full blacks, mulattos, quadroons, octoroons, and whites. Hambly has done her research and fills us in on the significances of racial differences and issues. When a young woman is killed at a ball in the week leading up to Mardi Gras, January myst solve the crime to avoid having it pinned on him.January is not fabulous but is a pretty interesting character. He moved to Paris and worked as a musician and a surgeon, married, and returned home to NO after the death of his wife. His experiences elsewhere give him perspective on "how things are" in New Orleans. He is very conscious of what he must do to survive, but has enough pride to hate doing it. His relationship with an uneducated, inarticulate white police lieutenant has some interesting moments.The book takes a long time to get going, as Hambly does a lot of scene-setting and introduces a lot of characters of different racial compositions and social stations. We don't know for quite a while who are the central players and who are secondary. This is not in itself terrible, but it made it a little tough to get my bearings in the first 150 pages. After that, we had seen some characters enough to get the hang of who and what they were, and follow the story more easily. The book's final third moves along swiftly and takes good advantage of the setting Hambly has established.Once the pace picked up and I had my bearings, I found this an enjoyable read. I'm looking forward to the next installment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great historical mystery.
wyvernfriend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well written Detective story from a fantasy master. Annoyingly it is described by some reviewers as her `debut¿ novel, but sometimes people don¿t notice little things like the author writing for about 10 years or so. New Orleans is the locations and the setting is well depicted. Pre civil war, New Orleans has a different attitude in some ways to people of colour. Still Benjamin can¿t get a job as a surgeon or doctor - where he is qualified and practiced in Paris, he is forced to work as a musician. Then a woman - a mistress of a powerful man in the city - is murdered and he was the last person seen near her. Not only did I enjoy it but I passed it on to a work colleague and she enjoyed it too.
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