I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

I first read this book over ten years ago and now that I have discovered Hambly's other series, the Abigail Adams series under the name Barbara Hamilton, I decided to go back and read this series as I remember enjoying it very well.  I am glad I did.

First off, this book takes place in 1833, in the special demi-monde of New Orleans where to call a man of mixed race black would be an insult, whereas he would rather be called colored, unlike today.  In this world, a child born with one black and one white parent, is a mulatto.  A child born between a mulatto and a black, is a griffe, or sambo; quadroon for the child of a mulatto and a white; octoroon for  a quadroon's baby by a full white; musterfino or mameloque for an octoroon's child by a full white.  Creole's had their own hierarchy too and words to categorize each other.  When a white man, be he French or Creole, takes a mistress, he goes to Blue Ribbon Balls to seek an arrangement with the  mother of the mixed-race free young woman.  The mistress, or placee, in many cases, had more say in their lives than the wives of the  men who were signing legal documents that would dictate how much money she would receive, servants, a house, care for any children produced from this union, and many more.  A wife was the property of her husband and had no say in any of his affairs and was forced to pretend that he did not have a mistress.

Enter into this society, Benjamin Janvier, whose mother was a mulatto and father a black.  He, his older sister Olympe, and his mother were bought and freed by a doctor when he was young.  The doctor saw to his schooling and piano lessons as he had an aptitude for it.  He became interested in being a doctor and the only place that would take him in to study was in Paris.  After he graduated, he practiced for three years at a hospital, but gave it up, since he would never have the money to open his own shop.  He went back to playing piano and met an Algerian dressmaker and married her.   When she died, he could not stand to be in Paris anymore, so after being away for seventeen years, in a country that treated him better than his own, a country where he was allowed to look any man in the eye without fear of consequence, he moves back to New Orleans and finds that things have changed.  The Americans have arrived and are slowly taking over.  He now has to carry his free papers with him at all times, and even then, can be kidnapped into slavery.  Those in New Orleans think the uncouth Americans do not even know how to get a proper mistress, in that they just take a slave and when they are done with her, put her back in the fields. 

This book takes place during the Mardi Gras season, which lasts around a week of celebrations and balls.  The Blue Ribbon Ball, with the placees in it would be next door to the Theatre Ball, with the wives and family, so the men could come and go to each as he pleased.  Janvier is playing piano at the Blue Ribbon Ball, when he meets his old piano student, Madeline, who is now the widow of Arnauld Trepagier.  Trepagier, gave away some of her jewelry, clothes, and slaves to his mistress Angelique Crozat.  She is there to try to get her jewelry back, because the house and land is leveraged to the hilt and she is about to lose everything if she can not pay the bank.  Janvier agrees to give Angelique a message, if Madeline will please go home, before she is spotted and her reputation ruined.

Angelique, against social mores for one whose lover has just died two months ago, shows up at the ball flirting with all the men, but especially trying to make Galen Peralta jealous.  After Janvier delivers his message, Peralta storms into the room and shuts the door on them.  Janvier goes back to playing piano.  His other sister, Dominique, or Minou, the daughter of his mother and the doctor, has been looking for Angelique for a while for the entertainment section they will be doing.  She sends Janvier to look for her.  When Janvier finds her, she is stuffed in a coat closet, her neck devoid of jewelry, and strangled.  The manager of the building the ball is taking place in does not want to call the police, but while examining the body, Janvier sends a note to his sister to call the police.  A Lieutenant Shaw, a backwoods Kentuck arrives to investigate.  As Angelique was a citizen of the town, they are obliged to investigate.  At first there is a fuss about questioning the rich men, who are costumed and do not want their identities known, but Minou provides the identities for Shaw.

Then, the police suddenly drop the matter, until Angelique's mother, whose lover is a high placed man in New Orleans, insists on having the matter solved, the police become interested again.  Unfortunately for Janvier, people remember seeing him going up to speak with Angelique but not seeing anyone after him.  The police are quite happy to pin this murder on a colored man, rather than a white one and set out to do just that.  Janvier finds himself hiding from the police and trying to seek out the truth, with some help from Shaw, who does not believe he did it, but will arrest him if he has no choice.  From the swamps of the country to the dark alleys where voodoo is practiced, this mystery takes many twists and turns, as Janvier finds that some people are not telling him the whole truth about that night.  The ending will come to a very climatic climax when Janvier tries to prevent a killer from killing again and keeping his head out of the noose.

Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Free-Color-Benjamin-January-Book/dp/0553575260/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478540648&sr=1-1&keywords=free+man+of+color

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