Benjamin January mysteries
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The Benjamin January mysteries are set in and around New Orleans during the 1830s, and focuses primarily on the free black community which existed at that time and place. The first book was published in 1997, and the series is still on-going. The first eight books in the series were published by Bantam Press, with the subsequent four being published by Severn House Publishers. The second book in the series, Fever Season, was named a New York Times Notable Mystery Book of 1998.
Major reoccurring characters
Benjamin January: Mixed-race former slave, freed as a child by his mother's lover. He was trained in Paris as a surgeon, but works primarily as a piano player. He is very tall, and very dark-skinned, which is a significant impediment to his medical career in pre-Civil War New Orleans. He lived in France for many years, but returned to New Orleans when his first wife died.
Rose Vitrac: The mixed-race daughter of a placée, who was raised with the intention of becoming a placée herself. However, Rose was more interested in learning, particularly natural sciences, and eventually managed to secure an education for herself and establish herself as a schoolteacher, in order to assist other free colored girls. She is close friends with both Benjamin and Hannibal, and eventually becomes Benjamin's wife.
Hannibal Sefton: Benjamin's friend and fellow musician (violin). He is Anglo-Irish, and appears to be from a noble or wealthy family, though he refuses to speak about his past. He has tuberculosis, and an addiction to laudanum, which he eventually manages to break. Hannibal is one of the few white people in the books willing to socialize with black people, and as a result is regarded as somewhat degenerate by white society.
Dominique 'Minou' Janvier: Benjamin's younger half-sister. She is the placée of a wealthy white gentleman, Henry, and the daughter of another.
Olympe 'Olympia Snakebones' Corbier: Benjamin's younger sister (though older than Dominique). Generally known as Olympia Snakebones, she is a locally prominent Voodoo practitioner, as well as a wife and mother. Both she and Benjamin were fathered by another slave before their mother became a placée. She was freed at the same time as her brother and mother.
Livia Janvier Levesque: The mother of Benjamin, Olympe, and Dominique. She is a former placée, and now a minor land owner. She is half white, and extremely status-conscious. She was born a slave, and was freed along with her children when she became a placée.
Lieutenant Abishag Shaw: A policeman, originally from Kentucky, who is significantly smarter and better educated than he pretends to be.
Henri Viellard: The man that Dominique is the placée of, and eventually the father of her child.
Chloe Viellard (née St Chinian): Henry's fiance, later his wife; a young heiress with control of her own property.
Works in the Series
The Benjamin January mysteries series consists of twelve novels and three short stories to date.
- A Free Man of Color (1997)
- Fever Season (1998)
- Graveyard Dust (1999)
- Sold Down the River (2000)
- Die upon a Kiss (2001)
- Wet Grave (2002)
- Days of the Dead (2003)
- Dead Water (2004)
- Dead and Buried (2010)
- The Shirt On His Back (2011)
- Ran Away (2011)
- Good Man Friday (2013)
- "Libre" (2006, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2006, Salute to New Orleans issue.) Benjamin solves a mystery relating to the disappearance of a placée's daughter, who was shortly to have become a placée herself. Hannibal and Dominique assist.
- "There Shall Your Heart Be Also" (2007, published in New Orleans Noir.) Benjamin and Hannibal are asked to help when a stranger attempts to steal Kentucky Williams' bible.
- "A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven" (2010, self-published.) Rose, with the help of Dominique, solves the murder of a neighbor while Benjamin and Hannibal are away during The Shirt on His Back.
All the short stories are also available for download on Hambly's website.
A Free Man of Color: Newly arrived in New Orleans after spending most of his adult life in Paris, Benjamin is accused of the murder of a placée named Angelique when he is the last known person to see her alive. Benjamin struggles to find the real killer before he is jailed and executed for the murder. He also tries to help the widow of Angelique's former protector, a white woman who may have had her own reasons for wanting Angelique dead.
Fever Season: During a cholera and yellow fever epidemic, Benjamin deals with a runaway slave girl, Cora, who is wanted for poisoning her master, Otis Redfern. He also meets Rose, the head-mistress of a school for free colored girls, when he helps to treat several of the students who have yellow fever. The kidnapping of free blacks to sell them as slaves forms a major subplot to the novel. The climax is based on a true, rather horrific, historical incident.
Graveyard Dust: Benjamin's sister Olympe is accused of murder and Benjamin must find the real killer in order to prevent her from being hanged. Olympe's role as a voodoo practitioner is used against her to raise suspicion, and voodoo plays an important part in the mystery.
Sold Down the River: The white planter who formerly owned Benjamin and his family asks Benjamin to determine the source of a series of violent incidents on his plantation. Benjamin agrees, but must go undercover as a slave, taking along Hannibal to serve as his master. The ruse places Benjamin in a great deal of danger, as well as bringing back unwelcome memories of his childhood as a slave.
Die upon a Kiss: An opera troupe, composed mostly of Italians, arrives in New Orleans, and Benjamin and Hannibal are hired to play in the orchestra. However, after the director and several other members of the troupe are attacked, Benjamin investigates to find out the cause, which he suspects is related to the production of an operatic version of Othello. In a subplot, Dominique finds herself pregnant and struggles with the decision to keep the child.
Wet Grave: The aging former placée of a pirate is killed under mysterious circumstances, and Benjamin and Rose find themselves caught up in the workings of someone else's plot, on the run in the bayous and marshes. Historical events involving pirates, including Jean Lafitte, are relevant to the plot. Henri and Chloe marry, putting Henri and Dominique's relationship in peril. Benjamin and Rose marry at the end of the book.
Days of the Dead: In Mexico City, Hannibal has been falsely accused of poisoning the son of a prominent local landowner. Benjamin and Rose, at his request, come to find the true murderer amid a complicated tangle of relationships and suspects.
Dead Water: A great deal of money has been embezzled from the bank where Benjamin and his wife Rose keep their money. To prevent the bank's collapse, and thus save Rose's school for colored girls, Benjamin, Rose, and Hannibal follow the embezzler on a steamboat to recover the stolen money. The embezzler's murder complicates matters greatly.
Dead and Buried: At a friend's funeral, Benjamin discovers a different body in the coffin— that of a white man that Hannibal recognizes. Hannibal's history, which he has long kept a secret, proves relevant to the mystery. The issue of 'passing' plays an important part in the novel.
The Shirt on His Back: Lieutenant Shaw's younger brother was murdered while working as part of a fur trading company in the Rocky Mountains. Shaw, Benjamin, and Hannibal travel to a trade rendezvous to find the killer. At the end of the book, Rose gives birth to her and Benjamin's first child, John.
Ran Away: A former Turkish ambassador moves to New Orleans, but is the first suspect when two of his concubines are murdered. Nearly half the book takes place in a flashback to Paris, 1827, where Benjamin had met the Turkish man previously. Benjamin's relationship with his first wife, Ayasha, is given greater detail.
Good Man Friday: A friend of Chloe and Henri Viellard disappears while traveling in Washington DC. Chloe, Henri, Dominique, and Benjamin go to the capital to investigate, becoming involved in subplots with early baseball, slave-stealers, mathematical codes, and Edgar Allan Poe.
The series, beginning with A Free Man of Color, follows Benjamin January, a brilliant, classically educated free colored surgeon and musician living in New Orleans during the belle epoque of the 1830s, when New Orleans had a large and prosperous free colored demimonde. January was born a slave but freed as a young child and provided with an excellent education; he is fluent in several classical and modern languages and thoroughly versed in the whole of classical Western learning and arts. Although trained in Paris as a surgeon, he has returned to Louisiana to escape the memory of his dead Parisian wife. As he is a very dark-skinned black man, in Louisiana he cannot find work as a surgeon. Instead, he earns a modest living by his exceptional talent and skill as a musician.
Each title is an entertaining murder mystery with a complex plot and well-developed characters, and each explores many aspects of French Creole society. However, most tend to emphasize some particular element of antebellum Louisiana life, such as Voodoo religion (Graveyard Dust), opera and music (Die Upon a Kiss), the annual epidemics of yellow fever and malaria (Fever Season), fear of miscegenation (Dead and Buried), or the harsh nature of commercial sugar production (Sold Down the River).
Important themes running throughout the series are 1) the cultural clash between the rising Protestant English-speaking Anglo-Americans on the one hand and the declining Catholic, French-speaking Creoles on the other, 2) the extreme regard of Creole society for "how" colored a person is (quite alien to modern readers), 3) January's bitterness at the many forms of racial injustice he observes, 4) the complex, partially race-based sexual politics of colonial French society, and 5) January's ongoing attempts to balance the primal, open, and frank African outlook acquired in his early childhood with the more restrained and rational European worldview he now holds. This last theme occurs most often with respect to music, spirituality, and respect for law and social custom.