Barbara Hambly’s A Free Man of Color--
I’ve never read a book where the writing style so perfectly matches the setting and the story.
Listen to this opening paragraph--
“Had Cardinal Richelieu not assaulted the Mohican Princess, thursting her up against the brick wall of the carriageway and forcing her mouth with his kisses, Benjamin January probably wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss later on.”
What an opening!
When someone kills Angelique Crozat at a Mardi Gras ball, Creole physician and music teacher, Benjamin January is the last witness to have seen her alive.
Crozat was a placee, a kept woman. Someone killed her at the placee’s Mardi Gras ball. The ball was one of two held in ballrooms side-by-side. On one side white men and their white wives party. On the other side, placees and others of mixed-race party.
The husbands spend most of the night on the placee’s side. Everyone is in costume. The men and their placees often retire to private boxes above the main ballroom.
Hambly’s story centers on the murder of a placee who has used her sexual power to impoverish her lover’s wife.
I may not have all this exactly right. The social structure was so foreign to me that I didn’t always understand. Hambly’s forward describes the differences between mulattos; grifes or sambos; quadroons; octoroons; musterfinos or mameloques; and full whites.
I don’t mean to make this book seem overly complicated, though the book is complicated. January’s world is unique. And it is changing. The newly-infused white Americans have a different attitude. Black is black. There are no shades of black.
At one point January finds himself thinking, “The courts were still sufficiently Creole to take the word of a free man of color against a white in a capital case.” White people’s courts wouldn’t have done that.
This is a wonderful book, well-plotted, and, in places, filled with action.
Barbara Hambly’s A Free Man of Color will transport you to 1830’s New Orleans.