Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Mardi Gras Mystery

Some authors are quiet, ordinary people who seem to live vicariously through the exotic characters they write about. Others have led such varied and interesting lives that they could very well be the protagonists in their own books.  Barbara Hambly is one of those writers; to quote the biography in the back of most of her books, "[a]t various times in her life Barbara Hambly has been a high school teacher, a model, a waitress, a technical editor, a professional graduate student, an all-night clerk at a liquor store, and a karate instructor."  She also has a master's degree in medieval history.  Now that's a woman I'd like to meet.

For the time being, though, I'm making do by reading through her enormous literary output.  Much of her earlier work was straight fantasy, but she also writes impressively researched historical fiction.  I particularly enjoy the series featuring Benjamin January.   A Free Man of Color, the first of them (and not to be confused with the recent Broadway play) is perhaps my favorite.

A Free Man of Color begins during Mardi Gras season in 1833.  Benjamin January is a Paris-trained black surgeon and musician who has returned to his mother's home in racially conscious New Orleans to escape the memories of his dead wife that tortured him in France.  His mother and younger half-sister belong to the demimondaine of New Orleans - dependent upon but not publicly acknowledged by their white patrons - and re-entering their milieu quickly enmeshes January in a murder mystery which he must solve in order to avoid becoming the real murderer's scapegoat.  The historical details are intricate and authentic, but they never overwhelm the strong, individual characters or the momentum of the plot.  I was very pleased when Ms. Hambly started to produce sequels.

The series now also includes (in chronological order) Fever Season, Graveyard Dust, Sold Down the River, Die Upon a Kiss, Wet Grave, Days of the Dead, and Dead Water.  Some are not set in New Orleans but they all feature Benjamin January and a few other core characters plus Ms. Hambly's unique talent for transporting us to another era.  Unfortunately no additional volumes have been added since the publication of Dead Water in 2004; I may just have to go back to A Free Man of Color and read my way through all the existing books one more time.

"Had Cardinal Richelieu not assaulted the Mohican Princess, thrusting 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." ~Barbara Hambly, the opening sentence of A Free Man of Color

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