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Customer Review

on 15 January 2003
At first, it is difficult to understand what Barbara Hambly was attempting with "A Free Man of Color". Typically, when an author chooses an historical setting, he or she is doing one of two things, bringing light to the past through the artifice of fiction or revealing the present through the veil of the past. If Hambly was doing the former, she did a fine job of evoking old New Orleans.
The book takes place during a time when The City That Care Forgot was losing her tenuous grip on her past and becoming a unique product of American industrialism and European traditions. The Civil War was still thirty years in the future and New Orleans, for all the destruction and disease she had seen, for all the blood spilled in her streets still had an air of innocence. This is the story of Benjamin Janvier, recently widowed and returning to New Orleans after 16 years in Paris. This places Benjamin in the unique position of being able to contrast Paris, with it's lack of color distinctions, and New Orleans, with it's infamous "Code Noir" - the well-defined laws governing the behavior of "colored" people and their interaction with the French settlers, or Creoles. This also places the reader in the position of comparing the treatment of blacks in Janvier's day and their treatment today, which makes this something of the latter of the above kinds of novels. Is Hambly trying to tell an engaging and accurately detailed story set in the past? Or is she trying to poignantly underline current wrongs by speaking to us through the past? I'm not sure she is certain which story she wants to tell, which puts the reader in the awkward position of trying to figure it out for themselves.
Ben, a surgeon in Paris but, due to prejudice, unable to practice medicine in New Orleans, makes his living as a pianist. On his way to play at an octaroon ball, he runs into one of his former students, Mistress Trepagier, a creole widow who is sneaking into the ball in disguise, desperate to speak with her late husband's mistress. When the mistress is later strangled, Ben, due to his color, seems a likely scapegoat - the victim was a woman of color, the murderer a man of color. Let's hang him and get on with our lives. Thinking he will get no consideration from the police, Benjamin looks into the murder on his own. Hambly seems to have difficulty finding the rhythm in her narrative, like a drummer only slightly out of step with the rest of the marching band. The overall effect is nice, but you keep suspecting her hitching a step in order to catch up. Once she gets in step, however, the effect is mesmerising; the language becomes more fluid, the characters more honest to themselves. From an historical perspective, I fully expected to have Marie Laveau pop up, at least in mention, and I was not disappointed; the greater treat was a cameo by Madame LaLaurie, the famous New Orleans civil rights activist (I'm kidding, of course).
Although I had to struggle to get comfortable with this book, it won me over in the end. I am looking forward to the next story in the Benjamin Janvier chronicles.
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