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A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January #1)

3.97  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,213 Ratings  ·  243 Reviews
New Orleans 1833 Mardi Gras. While Creole Ben January plays piano, Angelique Crozat, colored mistress vain for whiteness, is fatally strangled. Authorities are reluctant to inquire. Whites, even policeman Abishag Shaw, blame Ben, fathered by black. Ben seeks killer from seamy haunts of riverboaters into huts of voodoo-worshiping slaves.
Paperback, 432 pages
Published June 1st 1998 by Bantam (first published 1997)
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The Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoThe Alienist by Caleb CarrThe Historian by Elizabeth KostovaThe Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz ZafónMistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
Best Historical Mystery
116th out of 1,305 books — 3,310 voters
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth PetersThe Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. KingThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan BradleyMaisie Dobbs by Jacqueline WinspearMistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
Favorite Historical Mystery Series
74th out of 779 books — 878 voters

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Community Reviews

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Althea Ann
Dec 29, 2015 Althea Ann rated it really liked it
My book club selection for this month.

Previously (and many years ago) I'd read a few of Hambly's early fantasy books, and not been overly impressed - they were OK, but didn't transcend any of the genre standards. After reading 'A Free Man of Color' at a friend's recommendation, I can confirm that yes, Hambly definitely improved over time.

Aside from a few suggestions that voodoo curses and/or protective charms may be efficacious, the book does not have fantasy elements - it's historical fiction.
Jamie Collins
I really enjoyed this. It's very nice historical fiction and a pretty good mystery as well. Hambly's writing is excellent. The characterizations are rich and achingly realistic. She does tend (so it seems to me, after reading three of her novels) to indulge in outrageous action scenes for her endings.

Benjamin January is the titular free man of color, and at the end I was insufficiently convinced of his need to remain in the hazardous environment of 1833 New Orleans rather than return to Europe,
Dec 30, 2011 Jacqie rated it really liked it
Re-read this one for mystery book club, and glad I did. Barbara Hambly looks at race, gender and class, framed with a mystery plot. Ben January is unlike any other protagonists I've read, a 40 year old free man of color in 1830's New Orleans who has returned to his hometown after his wife's death in Paris. He is trained as a doctor, but makes his living as a piano player. He has a sister who's a courtesan and one who's a voodooiene.

The mystery is complex, with a vast cast of characters. It's so
Jacqui Talbot
Aug 23, 2012 Jacqui Talbot rated it really liked it
When beautiful and ruthless octoroon Angelique Crozat is found strangled to death in the midst of an opulent Mardi Gras costume ball, dark-skinned Benjamin January—physician, music teacher, and son of a former slave—soon finds himself the prime suspect in her murder. With his freedom and life at stake, January sets out to find the real killer. His quest will take him from the opulent mansions of rich white planters to the huts of voodoo-worshipping slaves, and through the dark streets of 1833 Ne ...more
Dec 07, 2014 Dagny rated it really liked it
A Free Man of Color (1997) is the first of Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January mystery series. There are now over a dozen. I knew I enjoyed Hambly's writing from some of her earlier books, but was a long time beginning this since I don't always care for novels set in the past and this one is set in New Orleans in the 1830s. It was fascinating! New Orleans has an extremely interesting cultural past and historian Hambly brought it all to life!
Oct 16, 2011 Anita rated it it was amazing
If you want to read a historical novel that has a carefully researched background, this book is the book for you. I will give you a word of warning however: Do not think that because this book is set in the United States and the characters all speak English that you are reading of characters who share a common culture with you. The world of Louisiana in the 1840's is a very different place and its people think far, far differently than do the people who live there today.
If it helps, perhaps your
Aug 11, 2008 Matt rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Fans of period peices. And its a decent mystery.
This is one of many books for which I wish there was some greater degree of granularity by which I could rate them. Some comprimise position would be welcome.

I spent the better part of this book thinking that I would give it two stars, and a portion nearer the end it sank nearly to one star in my estimation. But Hambly is a clever writer, and she avoided all the worst flaws a mystery can have and gave something of a satisfying ending, so I have to say that I liked it with some qualifications.

Feb 06, 2015 Bryce rated it really liked it
Benjamin January is a free man of color, recently returned to 1840s New Orleans. The city isn't quite what he remembered. On a large scale, the Americans are moving in, bringing with them their vulgar ways and language and their attitudes towards free and enslaved blacks. On a smaller scale, Ben has lost touch with the intricacies of Creole society, especially the lives of the colored demimonde.

All possible worlds collide when Ben is asked to deliver a message to a octaroon girl at a carnivale
Richard Derus
Dec 27, 2011 Richard Derus rated it liked it
Rating: 3* of five

The first Benjamin January/Javier mystery set in 1833 New Orleans and featuring a black musician/doctor as our POV character/sleuth.

The backstory of this mystery is, in my observation, more interesting than the mystery to be solved. I wasn't able to get into the book on first read, and made it to chapter 3 before shelving it. I re-tried the story, and got all the way through this time. It's a very evocative piece of writing, it's got a lot of characters whose interactions are v
S. Lynham
May 07, 2013 S. Lynham rated it it was amazing
Prior to reading this book, I knew nothing of "free people of colour" in the Southern USA and in particular New Orleans, where many a white slave owner had a coloured mistress set up in her own home that he visited regularly. Of course, children who were born belonged to the "massa"...he had the choice of sending them to his plantation to work or of allowing them to grow up with their mother. Often both mother and children were freed and able to carry on their own businesses and lives. But all o ...more
Rachel Brown
Aug 21, 2014 Rachel Brown rated it really liked it
Barbara Hambly has written some of my very favorite fantasy novels. She’s also famous for the Benjamin January series, about a free black man who solves mysteries in 1830s New Orleans.

I never got around to reading these, despite hearing very positive things, because American historical racism— particularly in the slavery era— is something I find crushingly depressing. Just to be clear: contemporary racism is also depressing. However, there’s certain topics which I personally find really hard to
Jun 26, 2012 Kara rated it it was amazing

This is a story about property.

It about who owns the land, who owns the jewels, the clothes, the bank, the stores, who owns the deeds and titles, and, most importantly, who owns the truth.

It’s 1830’s New Orleans and there is one set of rules for those with Caucasian ancestry, another set of rules with African ancestry, and a complicated multi-layer set of rules for those with a mix of those two ancestries, depending very much on what your percentage is, and what, exactly, the shade of color you
Erin (PT)
Mar 29, 2011 Erin (PT) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a reread...which is, in itself, a statement about how much I love this book, in particular and the series as a whole, that I find it worth spending the time to reread. Recently, the beginning books of the Benjamin January series were converted to ebooks and I wasted no time in getting them for my Nook.

I just finished the most recent book in the series, Shirt on His Back, at the same time I was reading this first volume and it's interesting to see how much the characters are still so con
Dec 27, 2009 Yune rated it really liked it
A reread, which is always rewarding with this particular book. I can't speak to the authenticity of the perspective, but I get this rush when I even just contemplate it: a surgeon, a musician...a former slave, and a man marked by the darkness of his skin in 19th-century New Orleans. Although the colored folk have carved a place for themselves in this city, it is still a place where their women are suitable as no more than contracted mistresses to wealthy landowners, and Benjamin must temper his ...more
Mar 01, 2012 Matthew rated it it was ok
This is a novel that deals with race politics in 1830’s New Orleans. The main character and narrator is a “free man of color” who studied medicine in France and served with Jackson in War of 1812. The novel is interesting in showing the transition from French to American control (Inhabitants felt that Napoleon had left them to be ruled by “Kaintuck” barbarians.) and how the Black Codes that had existed under the French, while still quite racist, were in many ways better than those that emerged u ...more
Feb 15, 2015 Mely rated it really liked it
Shelves: mystery, 2015-read
I read the first five or six books in this series around when they came out, and then fell behind on them, for no particular reason. It's been so long I decided to reread the beginning of the series before proceeding to the new(-to-me) books. The lush descriptions of New Orleans and the complex characterization bear up well to rereading.

I hadn't realized Mme. Lalaurie appears briefly in this book (she is a major character in the next).
Rebecca Huston
A very good thriller set in pre-Civil War New Orleans. The setting is unusual, the characters compelling and the plot full of very interesting twists -- all told in lush prose without a lot of the inaccuracies to be found in most historical fiction, mysteries or otherwise.

For the longer review, please go here:
Feb 14, 2014 Anna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Anna by: goodreads
I would classify this more as a historical novel versus a mystery; the mystery is incidental to the richly meticulous portrait Hambly paints of New Orleans Creole life with its convoluted maze of social (and legal) customs and traditions. But that life is itself being threatened and slowly eroded. New Orleans is now part of the Antebellum South and falls under rules and laws that don't always recognize the established ways of Creole society.

This is the world to which Benjamin Janvier (January) r
A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly is a historical mystery set in 1833 New Orleans. The “detective” is the titular freeman, Benjamin January, a surgeon and a talented musician. He has just returned to his family home after years abroad. When the mistress of a wealthy man is murdered, he becomes embroiled in the investigation.

Benjamin January is a somber and thoughtful character. He is heartbroken over the death of his wife, his estranged family, and the cruel and unfair system under which the
Jun 09, 2012 Lorraine rated it really liked it
“A Free Man of Color” is both a historical novel and a mystery novel. It takes place in New Orleans in 1833. Benjamin January, the main character, is the”free man of color,” but ironically he is not as free as one would hope. He is constrained by rigid rules and if he breaks the rules he will end up in jail and his identifying paperwork destroyed.

Benjamin, a very dark Creole) has been away from New Orleans for 16 years in Paris and has returned after all this time because he lost his wife and be
Tyler Tork
Jun 01, 2013 Tyler Tork rated it it was amazing
I always enjoy Barbara Hambly's work, and I'll certainly read more of this series. The setting is richly detailed and convincingly rendered, in a way that supports the story rather than distracting from it. It's also a real mystery, and a fair one -- the clues are there if you're not too carried away by the narrative to stop and look for them.

The time at which it's set is an interesting one -- after the Louisiana purchase, the dreaded Americans and their money and their projects are coming into
Marlene Banks
May 19, 2015 Marlene Banks rated it it was amazing
I really liked this story and consider the series an unsung jewel in the mystery/suspense genre. Barbra Hambly is a very good writer. She captures the age and place with literary skill. Her New Orleans of that day was informative and vividly depicted as well as thrilling with suspense. I loved the protagonist because he was believable and striking in character. She dug into who he was inside and why. Good character and plot driven combination. Well worth reading more of the Benjamin January myst ...more
Kalendra Dee
Sep 10, 2013 Kalendra Dee rated it it was amazing
It is 1833 Mardi Gras and freedman Benjamin January has just returned from a 16 year absence in Paris. Americans are moving into the Delta and the clear lines between white, colored, and black are being redrawn. When January goes to the aid of a masked woman, he becomes embroiled in the shocking murder of a courtesan and, since the woman was not white, it seems the police are disinclined to investigate. As January starts his own investigation, he comes face to face with the prejudices and barrie ...more
Nishta Mehra
Feb 17, 2012 Nishta Mehra rated it liked it
A solid piece of historical fiction, capturing the distinct world and intricate dynamics of 19th century New Orleans. The layering of race goes behind "black" and "white" here--every possible permutation of what we would now call "mixed race" intermingles, in sex and violence and with complex social rules and mores.

The book's protagonist, a free man of color named Benjamin January, is a compelling and sympathetic character, but I wish I had found the plot more engaging from the start. At times,
Jun 04, 2016 Ozsaur rated it really liked it
This book came highly recommended to me, so I hoped that I would like it, but I didn't want my expectations to get too high. As soon as I finished it, I immediately got and read the second book in the series. Sometimes, it turns out that a book is worth all the praise.

I was blown away by... well... everything! The easy, flow of the writing style, the setting and the time period, the characters, the pageantry and the tawdriness.

The book takes place in pre-Civil War New Orleans just a few years a
Hannah Ringler
A Free Man of Color is the first book in the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly, and it is awesome. It’s the story of Benjamin January, a middle-aged black musician and surgeon who has just returned to New Orleans, after spending most of his adult life in Paris, after the death of his beautiful wife Ayasha in a cholera epidemic. He’s severely depressed, barely making a living, and struggling with the culture shock of returning to the prejudice-ridden New Orleans after so long in the less ...more
Jul 21, 2014 Carol rated it liked it
This is a grim book. In 1833, a "free man of color" had a rough life in America. After being in Paris for 16 years, Benjamin returns to New Orleans after the death of his wife. Whoa! Coming back to the Code of Color, or whatever it is called, is a shock to the system after so many years abroad. The complicated system of rank based on how light or dark you are and your parents were, but at least in NOLA, you are accepted in the system.

Unfortunately, the Americans are beginning to take over. They
Carol Wilde
Feb 25, 2016 Carol Wilde rated it it was amazing
I found this a very satisfying period murder mystery set in and around New Orleans in 1833. It’s a couple of decades after the Louisiana Purchase and thirty years before the American Civil War, and the precarious position of a free but dark-skinned colored man in this time and place is made starkly clear. We’re also shown the conflict between the members of a highly stylized Creole culture and the relative new-comers, the uncouth and mercenary “Americans” or “Kaintucks.” Hambly’s historian crede ...more
Mar 06, 2015 Isis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think what I liked best about this book is the unvarnished look at New Orleans in the early 19th century, which is appalling in many ways to modern eyes, but fascinating because of that. The different subgroups and stratifications of society, each incredibly insular, each with their own rigid social rules: the Creole planters, the black slaves, the colored demimonde, the 'Kaintuck' riverboat men. The us-and-them attitude that came through almost unconsciously in January's casual description of ...more
Oct 17, 2014 Gwen rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club
Nice choice, book club! While the prose was rather dense at times, I really enjoyed this book. I have to thank many childhood rereadings of Secret Place of Thunder (which is much better than the bland and non-substantive reviews would indicate) for providing me with a (sanitized, naturally) understanding of New Orleans culture and the complicated gender and racial politics of quadroons/octoroons. Hambly puts some explanation of these issues up front, but absent other knowledge, her notes don't s ...more
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aka Barbara Hamilton

Ranging from fantasy to historical fiction, Barbara Hambly has a masterful way of spinning a story. Her twisty plots involve memorable characters, lavish descriptions, scads of novel words, and interesting devices. Her work spans the Star Wars universe, antebellum New Orleans, and various fantasy worlds, sometimes linked with our own.

"I always wanted to be a writer but everyone
More about Barbara Hambly...

Other Books in the Series

Benjamin January (1 - 10 of 13 books)
  • Fever Season (Benjamin January, #2)
  • Graveyard Dust (Benjamin January, #3)
  • Sold Down the River (Benjamin January, #4)
  • Die Upon a Kiss (Benjamin January, #5)
  • Wet Grave (Benjamin January, #6)
  • Days of the Dead (Benjamin January, #7)
  • Dead Water (Benjamin January, #8)
  • Dead and Buried (Benjamin January, #9)
  • The Shirt on His Back (Benjamin January, #10)
  • Ran Away (Benjamin January, #11)

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