A Free Man of Color


Barbara Hambly


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

September 10, 2020

hen reading a column about historical mysteries, I saw a list of detective series set in different times in history - Inspector Chen (Shanghai), Julian Kestrel (Regency England), Inspector Montalbano (Sicily), but the most unusual setting was 1830's New Orleans not long after the War of 1812, a series about Benjamin January by Barbara Hambly. A Free Man of Color is the first book in the series, which currently stands at 18 volumes. I decided to try this series because I recognized the author's name - Barbara Hambly is also a fantasy novelist, I read her novel The Time of the Dark - and also, I don't know anything about antebellum New Orleans, so the series might be enlightening as well as fun.

I read at night, before falling a sleep. If the book is interesting, I might stay up late and read an extra chapter or two. If the book turns out to be excellent, I will read it after work and on the weekends. If the book is boring, it gets harder and harder to pickup, and eventually I will just give up and try something else. A Free Man of Color was edging toward that "I give up, let me try something else" threshold - it wasn't enthralling me, so I would sleepily turn the pages, half forgetting what I just read. It didn't help that there were so many characters. But I had enough momentum to keep reading - and two thirds of the way through the novel, suddenly the action and drama picked up and the novel finished strong. I give A Free Man of Color two stars for the first section, and a four star rating for the finishing kick.

Benjamin January is an educated black freeman. Benjamin trained in France to be a surgeon, but of course no one in New Orleans believes that a black man could be smart or skilled enough to work in America to work as a physician. Therefore, January makes his money as a music teacher and playing in the orchestra for the numerous balls and fêtes that enliven New Orleans. January is playing at one of these masquerades when a murder occurs - someone strangles Angelique Crozat. Worst of all, Benjamin was one of the last persons to see Angelique alive, and it would be so easy to just blame the black man and claim that justice was done. However, there was one man to see Angelique after Benjamin left the room - a young white man named Galen Peralta entered the room as Benjamin left - clearly Galen is the primary suspect. There is a lot of blood on the nails of the dead Angelique, it is obvious that she fought with her assailant and scratched him severely - yet for the longest time no one seems to think to look if there are scratches upon Galen.

For the first two-thirds of this novel, I was mostly bored. It seemed like there were so many characters, plus, since it was a masquerade, it seemed like Hambly wanted the readers to remember which character was dressed as Ivanhoe, or Henry VIII or Marie Antoniette. There are clues from various costumes strewn about the crime scene, but I couldn't remember which character was wearing which outfit. I had the feeling that I should be paying careful attention to which costumed suspect was standing where, because it would be key to solving the puzzle, but it was too much work to remember all of that. Also, New Orleans has a confusing classification system - there are quadaroons, octoroons, plaçees and demimondes - I couldn't keep them all straight. Benjamin has two sisters and his mother lives in New Orleans, and all of them have different last names and nicknames, so I kept forgetting who was whom. Despite the fact that a murder has taken place, there doesn't seem to be much urgency into investigating the affair. The lieutenant Shaw doesn't seem to have much interest, and January himself mostly seems to be wandering around, rather than acting like a 19th century detective.

Because this novel is set in New Orleans, there has to be some voodoo. It seems that someone has placed a gris-gris in Angelique's house - this is a black magic straw doll that is sure to bring death and misfortune upon her. Clearly, someone in the Angelique household wished her ill. Benjamin seems to waste too much time talking to various people about this lead. I suspect that the multitudes of characters introduced in this novel will show up through out the rest of the series, but most of them made no impression upon me.

I felt that the novel got much better in the closing chapters. Benjamin finally heads up river to the Peralta plantation to see if Galen does indeed have scratches on his face. Leaving the city alone puts Benjamin out in the open, where he vulnerable to river pirates and slavers (despite the fact he is a free man, an unscrupulous slaver could capture Benjamin and sell him). Heading out on his rented horse finally injected some drama and tension into the story, and from there until the finish there was action and interesting developments. Does the good finish save the novel? I am ambivalent; I don't know if I am intrigued enough to read the next volume in the series.