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Benjamin January, Detective

“A lush and haunting novel of a city steeped in decadent pleasures…and of a man, proud and defiant, caught in a web of murder and betrayal.”

So begins’s book description of A Free Man of Color, the first in the Benjamin January mystery series.

Like millions of others, I love a good mystery. But what sets this series apart is where it is set–in New Orleans of the 1830s when the transition from a Spanish/French culture to an American one was just beginning. The protagonist is also unusual. Benjamin Janvier/January is a man of mixed heritage, but free. His mother was a mulatto slave, freed to become the placée (consort) of her master and she took her slave son, Ben, with her. The boy grew to be educated in Paris, as was the custom for young free men of color, where he became a trained surgeon as well as an accomplished musician.

Life circumstances, including saving his own skin, led him to also become an amateur detective. You see, the murder in this story was that of a young, ravishing octoroon during the Bal de Cordon Bleu, the Octoroon Ball where placées were presented.

Now you see my interest in this book. If you have read my posts (go to Labels in sidebar, click “placage”) regarding my family history, you will know that I suspect my ancestors have been part of the tradition known as plaçage. One way to research a lifestyle is through fiction, thereby utilizing the research of someone else. Truth be told, doesn’t all research depend on the knowledge and discoveries of someone else?

I’m reading this one now.

Of course, I do not take the customs and lifeways of novels as facts. But they are a jumping-off point to verify such things on my own. For instance, author Barbara Hambly has the Octoroon Ball held a mere passageway from a corresponding ball for legitimate wives, daughters, and nieces. This is fascinating and amazingly bold of these husbands and brothers, but I have yet to find confirmation of this practice from another source. It may just create great story tension–which it does when a plantation mistress, the former student of January, sneaks into the Octoroon Ball in disguise moments before the murder takes place.

If this period of history and the very unique racial hierarchy of New Orleans interest you–and you love a good murder mystery–I highly recommend this book. There are at least eleven books in the series and I am reading the second now. I will tell you that the beginning is a bit of a struggle to keep straight with several characters having confusing French names. But stick with it; it soon becomes clear and exciting.

With the search into my past, I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new world I had never heard of before. Research boring? I don’t think so.

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