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A Free Man Of Color

January 9, 2016

FreeManOfColorSome mystery novels are enjoyable because of the intricate and clever puzzle the author creates for the detective-hero to solve (and for the pleasure of trying to solve the puzzle before the denouement).  Some mysteries rely on the character of the protagonist and his/her complexities, inner turmoil and outward action. And some send us deeply into a foreign world—a different time, place or culture that illuminates for us not only that world and the people in it, but our own world and selves as well.

Barbara Hambly’s A Free Man Of Color does all three, but especially the third.  It’s Mardi Gras, 1833, in New Orleans.  Benjamin January, a dark-skinned, mixed-race former slave, has returned to his native city at age 40, having spent 16 years in Paris—first studying and then becoming a surgeon, but making his living primarily as a pianist.

To be plunged into New Orleans at the dawn of the mid-19th century is to encounter a society of intricate and ever-shifting hierarchies and gradations of race, class, language and relationships.  This is not the binary “black-white” society of the Anglophone “one drop” legal and social code.

It’s a society that has been ruled by the Spanish and French empires—and now by the upstart Americans—within January’s lifetime.  The “German Coast” has been settled for over a century.  The Arcadians arrived when January’s mother was a child.  The Haitian revolution was not just an ever-present memory from a generation ago; New Orleans was filled with Creoles—and their slaves—who had fled Haiti for their lives.  [“Creoles” were whites who had lived under Spanish and/or French rule, and were not to be confused with the upstart “Kaintucks” who had been coming down the river in ever-increasing numbers ever since Andrew Jackson had defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans.]

It’s a society filled with mulattoes, griffes, quadroons, octoroons and musterfinos on the African side, and an equally (if not greater) complex set of distinctions on the European side.  And that’s before considering the various Native nations—and their intermarriages with both Africans and Europeans—who are being subjected by now-President Jackson to the brutal “Trail of Tears”.

In the midst of all this, a white man is murdered at a Mardi Gras ball attended by Creole plantation owners and their light-skinned, mixed-race placees. January is one of the musicians at the ball, and one of the suspects.  To clear his name he must solve the crime, and must do so within the multiple and ever-shifting social boundaries of a fast-changing society that allows a shrinking arena of autonomy for a dark-skinned man…even if he is a homme de couleur libre.

A Free Man Of Color (first published in 1997) is the first in a series of Benjamin January mysteries by Hambly.  If the rest of the stories are half as good as A Free Man Of Color, it’s a terrific series.


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  1. This series was one of my favorites. The extraordinary society of New Orleans, at the time, is an amazing story by itself. The characters are well drawn and grow with each book.

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