Book review: A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly


Book cover: A Free Man of ColorA Free Man of Color
by Barbara Hambly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m a mystery fan, but typically don’t read historical mysteries.

I’m glad I gave this one a try.

The author, Barbara Hambly, has a master’s degree in medieval history, but takes her research skills in another direction with this first-in-a-series of about sixteen Benjamin January mysteries set in pre-Civil War New Orleans.

One of the things that makes this novel so strong is the richness of the writing. This is not a book that you can zip through, but if you take the time to savor the details, the author can transport you to this time and place.

For example, take her description of one of the run down sections of historical New Orleans called The Swamp:

“Most of the grog shops were open, barkeeps dispensing Injun whisky from barrels to long-haired flatboat men across planks laid over barrels, white men grouped around makeshift tables playing cards, and small groups of black men visible in alleyways, on their knees in the mud and weeds, shooting dice. In several cottages the long jalousies already stood open, revealing seedy rooms barely wider than the beds they contained, the women sitting on the door sills with their petticoats up to their knees, smoking cigars or eating oranges, calling out to the men as they passed.”

Ms. Hambly is particularly adroit at describing the class system that ruled New Orleans at the time: the French-Creole at the top, followed the “colored,” mixed-race individuals, and on the bottom rungs, the Black slaves and American flatboat men.

Benjamin January is a classically trained musician, a skilled surgeon who studied in Paris, and a former slave. When he is accused of murder he must discover the real killer before he is tried without a jury or worse, sold back into slavery.

A riveting tale! I am delighted that there are so many more January mysteries ahead of me.

I love it when I discover a new author!