A FREE MAN OF COLOR
As a rule, I don’t very much like Star Trek professional derivate fiction, but I have to make an exception for the novel “Ishmael” (Star Trek #23) by Barbara Hambly. It’s a breath of fresh air, as such novels go, because it uses the classic characters to advantage, is built on an original concept, is an exceptional example of a cross-universe story (and a startling one at that; the other universe is a short-lived Western series, Here Come The Brides), and also manages to spoof itself somewhat with all the other universes that manage to get one- or two- line ‘nods’ – just trying to find all the references to various incarnations of Dr. Who is a blast, not to mention figuring out which old Western series a particular background character is from.
Ooops, I’m not actually reviewing “Ishmael” this month, although it is still in print and I do heartily recommend it. I mention it because this was the book that introduced me to the wonderful writing of Barbara Hambly. Not only has she written Star Trek derivate, she is the author of at least one professional Star Wars novel, many very interesting original fantasy novels, one of the best (if not THE best) vampire novel (“Traveling with the Dead”), and now a fascinating historical series, the Benjamin January mysteries set in New Orleans in the 1830s. The fifth book in this set, “Die Upon a Kiss”, has just recently come out in hardback, but all of the previous books are still available, including the very first one, “A Free Man of Color”. As with many series, you should start by reading this book, to get the background, before venturing on to any of the subsequent novels.
Benjamin January is a tall black man in his forties, a free man born and raised in New Orleans but who went to Paris as a young adult, attended the university and was trained as a surgeon there, married an African woman, and lived in France for 15 years. Only after his beloved Ayasha died did he return to America. Of course, he cannot practice medicine in New Orleans, so he makes a living as a musician, and as a music teacher. He is in a very delicate position, in a society so complicated as to rival the caste system of India, and Hambly goes to great lengths to accurately portray – and make literary use of – this amazing social system. As she states in her notes:
“Light skin was valued, and dark skin discredited, and a tremendous amount of energy went into making distinctions that seem absurdly petty today. An intricate hierarchy of terminology existed to categorize those of mixed race: mulatto for one white, one black parent; griffe or sambo for the child of a mulatto and full black; quadroon for the child of a mulatto and full white; octoroon for a quadroon’s child by a full white; musterfino or mameloque for an octoroon’s child by a full black.”
Not only were there distinctions made in terminology, the way all these various groups interacted with each other varied on a sliding scale of rank. Then you had to add in the distinctions between a slave, a freeborn black, and a black freeman or a black who was born into slavery but had been freed; an incredibly complex caste system build around the socio-sexual mores of a culture that almost required a wealthy man to have not only a socially-acceptable wife but at least one mistress, both with children he was somewhat responsible for; and then mix all of this into the more familiar human stew of economic classes and ethnic differences. It makes for a positively brilliant background to a murder mystery, as “A Free Man of Color” shows to advantage.
It’s Mardi Gras, and January has been engaged to perform for one of the many balls to be attended primarily by white men and their placees, or mixed-race mistresses. The doctor/musician is called upon to help a former student, a white woman who has ventured into this situation against all social rules and been assaulted as a result. Madeleine Trepagier is a recent widow, and after January manages to free her from her assailant, she tells him she absolutely must meet with Angelique Grozet, an infamous octoroon courtesan whom society decrees all respectable white women should avoid at all cost. January promises to set up a meeting in a more discreet setting, but the haughty and malicious Angelique is murdered before he gets the chance.
As the primary suspects are upper class whites, the police originally don’t show a great deal of interest, except for Inspector Abishag Shaw, who because of his ‘Kaintuck’ origins is an outsider to the French-Creole society circles. Then blackmail enters into things, and various different people find ways to implicate Benjamin January, a freeman of color who is therefore a more socially acceptable culprit. As a result, he is thrown into a morass of greed, class-hatred, sexism, jealousy, and family pride. He is pursued, beaten, imprisoned and threatened with being sold into slavery to get him out of the city; his allies include his half-sisters Olympe and Dominique, disreputable fellow musician Hannibal, an old slave named Lucius Lacrimbe, and, surprisingly, Abishag Shaw. He has to solve many related mysteries dealing with family relations, the costumes various people were wearing for Mardi Gras, and the tensions between old New Orleans families and upstart newcomers from the rest of America. And, perhaps most importantly, January has to search within himself for the strength to stay in New Orleans rather than once again leave this country:
“He was a surgeon, and there were surgical hospitals in London, Vienna, Rome …
“Cities where he knew no one, where there was no one. He wasn’t sure when his feeling had changed, or how. … [deletion] He understood that he had been lonely in Paris, until he’d met Ayasha. He had been a stranger on the face of the earth, in every place but New Orleans, where his family was and his home.
“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. At twenty-four, he’d been strong enough, whole enough, to seek a new life. At forty, he didn’t know.”
So, he chooses to fight back, and solve the mystery. Finally, everything hinges upon the white dress and the jewelry the murdered woman was wearing, a land development scheme, and the relationship between Madeleine Trepagier and Augustus Mayerling, a Prussian fencing instructor. The climax includes a vividly drawn gun battle at a burning plantation manor.
Don’t look for a roller coaster ride with this book, although the action definitely speeds up toward the end. “A Free Man of Color” is not only a murder mystery, it’s a character study of Benjamin January, and a portrait of a part of American cultural history. As such, the pace picks up more gradually than in most modern mysteries, building to a very satisfying conclusion with a lot of surprises along the way. Hambly doesn’t indulge in either blame or apology for historical inequities, but she doesn’t ignore them either. The ugliness of a society built upon slavery and racial prejudice is essential to the story, but she doesn’t let it overwhelm the plot or the characters. The dilemmas are very human, and should be understandable to any reasonably sensitive reader, regardless of racial, social, or national background.
All in all, what we have here is a fine historical novel centered around an interesting murder suspect, with the historical setting well-researched and drawn with the skill of a writer accustomed to building unfamiliar yet believable ‘worlds’. If you think you’d like good, believable characters in a solid mystery with a colorful historical setting, give “A Free Man of Color” a try – and let me know what you think.
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