A Free Man of Color

Barbara Hambly has written a variety of books, beginning with fantasy. In 1997 she began the Benjamin January series with this book.

This is not a normal book. The story centers on the murder of Angelique, a free woman of color and mistress to a white man of power. The murder takes place at one of the many Mardi Gra dances in New Orleans, the octaroon ball. Benjamin spent several years in Pairs and became a surgeon, but back in New Orleans, he has to revert to his abilities with the piano to make a living.

Did I mention that the story is set in 1830, as the city is slowly being taken over by Americans–men of no class or culture.

The whole book is chock full of cultural conflicts. January’s dark skin has always been an embarrassment to his octaroon mother, though not his white father who sent him to Paris to study. His two sisters are the light brown of prized mistresses, and they do well in the cultural mix with their white benefactors.

January becomes the object of convenience as the scapegoat of the murder, and he has to tread carefully in his efforts to discover the true killer and keep himself alive in the process. Not only that, he has to hope the true killer is not a white man–he could never accuse such a person.

This is a must read story. Hambly does spend more time on the costumes then I want, but she creates a masterpiece of the settings and of the relationships and of the absolute nothingness of the slaves.

Read it. Five stars.

Mike Lawrence


This book is number 2 in the De Gier and Grijpstra police procedurals. It was published in 1976. The country in question is the Netherlands. The crime in question this time was the stabbing of Maria van Buren on her houseboat. The investigation revealed that she was a mistress to three well-placed men of wealth. How does one investigate an American military officer assigned to the Hague, the diplomat from Belgium, and one of the wealthiest men in Holland? Very carefully.

Van Buren was discovered to have come from the island of Curacao, so the commissaris, as bosses tend to do, said he would fly to the Caribbean island to find out what he could about her. The two plucky detectives also went to an island–off the coast of Netherlands; cold and wet.

As it happens, van de Wetering spent 7 years of national service as a reserve cop. While he did not do any detecting, it did give him an inside look at the police of his home country. In fairness, the world was his home. He spent most of his early life in South Africa, England, Australia, Japan, Colombia, and many stops along the way before moving to Surry, Maine, USA, where he spent his last few decades, dying there in 2008.

His writing has spunk.

Mike Lawrence