I often blog on a series of novels because I fall in love with the protagonist and want to follow him or her for as many books as the author produces which is the case with Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mysteries. However, the atmospheric and accurately researched setting grabbed my attention just as powerfully and has not let go, even after thirteen novels.
Barbara Hambly, a contemporary American author living in California, effectively brings the reader into antebellum New Orleans. (I had to look up the definition of antebellum: “occurring in the southern U.S. during the time before the American Civil War”. My study of history was limited in my student days, so I enjoy being educated by A Free Man of Color.)
Benjamin January, a young widower, makes his way home from Paris after the death from cholera of his Moroccan wife, Ayasha. 1833 in New Orleans offers very different opportunities for a free man of color; January’s medical training in Paris is discounted in his hometown and he resorts to earning a living solely from his piano performances and music lessons. His options narrow to playing for society occasions and the first mystery begins with the violent death of an octoroon mistress at an opulent Mardi Gras ball where January has been hired to perform. (octoroon: term of the time period that referred to a person with one-eighth African ancestry).
The city of New Orleans in this time period is exotic and decadent, a strange world, alien and fascinating. The nuanced social order, like a caste system, ranges from black slaves at the low end up to free colored. Benjamin January was not born free; instead he was the offspring of slaves on a Louisiana cane plantation who, when still a child, received his freedom in conjunction with his mother’s purchase and freedom. She became a placée (a status at the time somewhere between wife and mistress with legal obligations between a white man and a woman of color). January’s mother’s new status included the boon of her child receiving a classical education in Paris, and training as a surgeon and a musician.
January may be free, but his situation remains extremely precarious; he carries his free papers in his shoe when he lives his own home, and leaves another set in a safe deposit box. He faces daily terror that he will be “sold down the river” with no one to vouch for him. This horrifying reality is depicted graphically in the 2014 movie Twelve Years a Slave based on Solomon Northrup’s biography of the same name. “In New Orleans he was a man of color, an uneasy sojourner in a world increasingly American, hostile, and white. But he was what he was.” (A Free Man of Color)
In this first Benjamin January story, the entrenched and complex Creole social order of 1830’s New Orleans has been upset by the flood of uncultured Americans who, after the Louisiana Purchase, arrive to stake their claim to what they see as “new lands”. In A Free Man of Color, January discovers an unlikely ally in his elusive search for justice for the murdered courtesan, in the form a sympathetic (and unwashed) American – Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans Guards -whose keen sense of fairness matches January’s and pits them against both societal forces and pure evil.
The Benjamin January mysteries in order of publication: A Free Man of Color (1998), Fever Season (1999), Graveyard Dust (2000), Sold Down the River (2001), Die Upon a Kiss (2002), Wet Grave (2003), Days of the Dead (2004), Dead Water (2005), Dead and Buried (2010), The Shirt on His Back (2011), Ran Away (2011), Good Man Friday (2013), Crimson Angel (2014). Settings in later books include the worlds of Mexico, the American Frontier, Washington, D.C., and Haiti.
Barbara Hambly’s novels give us a refreshingly intricate and evocative set of American mystery stories crafted by a contemporary author. Although I am an avid mystery novel fan, I do not like them indiscriminately and acknowledge that my tastes run more toward British mysteries written in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by such authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Ellis Peters. These British mysteries offer rich English language and complex plots and are set in England in places and times that are foreign to me.