February 2, 2013

A Surprising Novel

I would not have believed it if someone had told me that a white female writer of detective fiction had created a believable African American male character, especially in 19th century New Orleans. Yet, that is exactly what Barbara Hambly has done in her first detective novel set in News Orleans in the 1830s. She gets into the very mind and soul of her black male character, Benjamin January. I learned about Hambly and the Benjamin January series through an article “A Free Man of Color: The Benjamin January Mysteries” by the very knowledgeable critic Jon L. Breen in the Mystery Scene magazine (issue No. 125; Summer 2012).

Hambly, a prolific novelist, has written novels in many genres—historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and romance fiction. She has three mystery novels in the Abigail Adams series, which she published under the pseudonym Barbara Hamilton. She began the first of eleven novels in the Benjamin January series in 1997 with A Free Man of Color (ISBN 0-553-10258-3).

In 1830, Benjamin January, all six feet, three inches of him, reluctantly returned home to New Orleans after living 16 years in Paris, France because, after his wife Ayasha died, he was lonely and depressed. In Paris, though he couldn’t practice his profession as a doctor and had to make his living as a piano player, he was free. He didn’t have to bow before every white person he met and didn’t have to hide his intelligence. Back in New Orleans, he was a freeman of color but steal had to put on the mask and not reveal his healing skills. He continued to make his living playing the piano at the many balls and the opera.

January and his full sister Olympe are the children of a mulatto mother and African father. When their father disappeared, their mother was sold to St. Denis Janvier, a Creole, and became his mistress, giving him a daughter, January’s half sister, Dominique. Janvier saw to it that Benjamin received an education in medicine and music. Although he is a free man, Benjamin can’t practice medicine because his skin is “cold black.” To earn money, he plays the piano at the balls and opera and gives lessons to young white children.

Benjamin’s trouble begins when he is the last person seen with the octoroon beauty Angelique Crozat who is later found dead in her dressing room where she was preparing to perform at the Blue Ribbon Ball. She makes a beautiful and expected corpse because she is “a thoroughly detestable woman…” Though Benjamin suspects the Creole gentleman who is courting her, trying to persuade her to become his mistress, is the murderer, he soon learns he is the main suspect and begins playing hide and seek with the authorities and the slave traders. He has to find the murderer of Angelique before the authorities or slave traders catch him. The authorities will mostly likely hang him. The slave traders certainly will sell him back into slavery. Benjamin’s predicament gives birth to his new profession: he becomes an amateur detective, and his first client is himself.

Reading A Free Man of Color is like taking a slow stroll through 1830s New Orleans. Hambly does an outstanding job describing the social milieu based on class, race, and nationality, and describing the balls, their purpose, and the type of women who attend them to catch a protector (Creole man whose mistress they will become). The wealth of detail paints an authentic picture of New Orleans society in the 1830s.

The great achievement of this exciting novel is the protagonist. Dark-skinned Benjamin January is a complex character who has to navigate three worlds: that of the slaves, that of free persons, and that of the whites (Creole and American). He has to carefully maneuver around the rules: one set for whites, one set for coloreds, and one set for blacks. He also has to deal with the uneasy relationship with his light-skinned mother, which reflects how skin color operates within the black families. Through it all, it becomes a good amateur detective.