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A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January #1)

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3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  1,861 ratings  ·  206 reviews
A lush and haunting novel of a city steeped in decadent pleasures...and of a man, proud and defiant, caught in a web of murder and betrayal.

It is 1833. In the midst of Mardi Gras, Benjamin January, a Creole physician and music teacher, is playing piano at the Salle d'Orleans when the evenings festivities are interrupted--by murder.

Ravishing Angelique Crozat, a notorious oc
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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
111th out of 1,021 books — 2,769 voters
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Favorite Historical Mystery Series
81st out of 685 books — 694 voters


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Community Reviews

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Jamie
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,
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Dagny
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!
Jacqie
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
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Anita
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
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Bryce
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
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S. Lynham
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
Matt
Aug 11, 2008 Matt rated it 3 of 5 stars
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.

The
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Jacqui Talbot
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
Kara

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
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Yune
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
Matthew
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
Rachel Brown
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
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Mely
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:
http://www.epinions.com/review/A_Free...
Anna
Feb 14, 2014 Anna rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
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Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways
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
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Caroline
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
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Lorraine
“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
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Tyler Tork
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
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Kalendra Dee
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
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,
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Erin (PT)
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
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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
Carol
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
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Gwen
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
Jada
Nov 03, 2014 Jada added it
This well-researched historical mystery’s protagonist is referred to as Benjamin Janvier sometimes and at other times his last name is January. And while I thought this was strange at first, as I read further, I understood that this was not the craziest thing in a very divided New Orleans. At this time, Creoles are whites of European ancestry who scorn the coarse manners and English language of their white American counterparts.

In 1833, New Orleans is transitioning from strong French influences
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Leslie Jem
This book was a chore to read, which is especially strange since I really liked the main character. The writing, however, was overly descriptive and distracting. The mystery was well-plotted, too. However, it was such a slow read that although I would like to hear the further adventures of Benjamin January, I don't think will pick up another book in this series.
Susanne
What a treat to discover a wonderful book I missed completely when it came out -- and what a bigger treat to realize it is the first of a series and that I'll have even MORE happy reading in months to come! I spent a week of miserably cold New England winter traveling back in time to 1830's New Orleans with Hambly's impressive amateur detective Benjamin January, the 'free man of color.' In addition to sophisticated plot and glorious language, she gives us a vivid history lesson about race in the ...more
Naomi
I really enjoyed this story set in New Orleans during the very early 1800's. The book was well written and the mystery kept me going. I enjoyed the character and the "mysterious" descriptions of New Orleans. I have always been fascinated with NO and this book just kept it going.
Crystal
This is a well written mystery set in New Orleans, LA right when the U.S. has taken over from France. It focuses on Benjamin January, a free man of color. He solves a mystery, but must walk a fine line because of his status. A great start to a great series.
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10333
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
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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)
Children of the Jedi (Star Wars) Dragonsbane (Winterlands #1) The Time of the Dark (Darwath, #1) Those Who Hunt the Night (James Asher, #1) The Armies of Daylight (Darwath, #3)

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