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A Free Man of Color


Barbara Hambly

Praise for Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color

"A smashing debut novel. In lush detail Hambly recreates the world of the demimonde and the Mardi Gras balls, the plight of slaves, and the intricate social structure of a city that for generations has strictly adhered to rules unique to New Orleans. Ben is a wonderful character, strong and tempered by personal grief, smart and courageous... A rich story with well-drawn characters, memorable action scenes, and a sense of place so strongly rendered that it surrounds the reader."-Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

"A vivid depiction of an exotic bygone time." -The Sunday Oregonian, Portland

"Magically rich and poignant... In scene after scene researched in impressive depth and presented in the cool, clear colors of photography, Hambly creates an exotic but recognizable environment for January's search for justice."- Chicago Tribune

"A richly detailed, telling portrait of an intricately structured racial hierarchy, which was to leave its mark on everyone."-Booklist

"A smashing debut novel. This is a rich, exciting story with both substance and spice that is sure to please any palate."-Star Tribune, Minneapolis

"A fascinating look at a fascinating city in a fascinating time in our history."-The Purloined Letter

"Barbara Hambly has crafted a most sparkling gem... Readers are transported back to a distinctive time and place and introduced to a most unusual protagonist... New Orleans vivdly comes alive... January is a fascinating hero, one who should be heard from soon again."-KING FEATURES SYNDICATE

"Subtly planting clues along the way, Hambly crafts a tale of intrigue set against a class-conscious Louisiana society and the many different definitions of 'black.' " -The Detroit News

"A Free Man of Color, Hambly's first mystery, will add substantially to her acclaim... This book is very good, indeed."-The Washington Times

"An astonishing tour de force. Hambly's re-creation of pre-Civil War New Orleans has the ring of eyewitness testimony. This tense and absorbing drama is full of clever twists, chilling dangers, and unexpected acts of redeeming grace. If you read only one historical mystery this year, let it be this one." -MARGARET MARON

"Hambly weds her vivid imagination with her gift for accurate and telling period detail. The result is a jewel-like novel that glitters with multiple facets... Unique."-BookPage

"A wonderful glimpse of history with an intriguing mystery at its center... Fascinating." -The Montgomery Advertising amp; Alabama Journal

Look for the second Benjamin January novel of suspense

Fever Season

by Barbara Hambly

Coming in hardcover in July 1998 from Bantam Books

A Free Man of Color

Barbara Hambly


New York Toronto London

Sydney Auckland

This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.



Bantam hardcover edition published July 1997

Bantam paperback edition June 1998

For Brother Ed

All rights reserved.

Copyright 1997 by Barbara Hambly.

Cover art copyright 1998 by Jason Seder.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-44942.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books.

If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

ISBN 0-553-57526-0 Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

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In any work of fiction dealing with the American South, a writer runs into the problem of language and attitudes -specifically not only words and phrases but outlook, upbringing, and unspoken assumptions, which, though widely held and considered normal at the time, are appalling today.

The early 1830s were a time of great change in America. President Andrew Jackson's view of democracy was very different from the eighteenth-century vision of the country's founders. Civil War and Reconstruction lay a generation in the future, and the perception of blacks- by the whites and by the blacks themselves-was changing, too.

In New Orleans for most of the nineteenth century, it would have been as offensive to call a colored-that is, mixed-race-man or woman "black," as it would be today to call a black person "colored." Both words had connotations then that they do not have now; both words are freighted now with history, implications, and inferences unimaginable then.

I have tried to portray attitudes held by the free people of color toward the blacks-those of full or almost-full African descent, either slave or free-and toward the Creoles-at that time the word meant fully white descendants of French and Spanish colonists-as I have encountered them in my research. Even a generation ago in New Orleans, the mothers of mixed-race teenagers would caution their children not to "date anybody darker than a paper bag." Light skin was valued and dark skin discredited, and a

tremendous amount of energy went into making distinctions that seem absurdly petty today. An intricate hierarchy of terminology existed to categorize those of mixed race: mulatto for one white, one black parent; griffe or sambo for the child of a mulatto and full black; quadroon for the child of a mulatto and a full white; octoroon for a quadroon's child by a full white; musterfino or mameloque for an octoroon's child by a full white. (I've seen alternate meanings for griffe, sambo, and musterfino, so there's evidently some question about either what the records were talking about, or whether the people at that time used the same words for the same things.)

White Creoles, by the way, had an intricate hierarchy of words to categorize each other as to social standing and how long their families had been prominent in New Orleans society, so they evidently just liked to label things. Americans, of course, simply did not count.

I have not attempted to draw parallels to any modern situation or events. I have tried to construct a story from a historical setting, using the attitudes and outlooks -and, of necessity, terminology-of that time and place. I have attempted, to the best of my ability, neither to glamorize nor to conceal. The territory is touchy for those who have suffered, or whose families have suffered, from the prejudices and discrimination that once was- and still is to some extent-commonplace. To them I apologize if I have inadvertently offended. My goal is, as always, simply to entertain.


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.

Now, THERE's a story for the papers. January considered the tangle of satin and buckskin, the crimson of the prelate's robe nearly black in the darkness of the passageway save where the oil lamp that burned above the gate splashed it with gory color, the grip of the man's hand on the woman's buttocks and the way her dark braids surged over his tight-clenched arm. Certainly the American papers: Cardinal Richelieu Surprised with Leatherstocking's Sister. It was a common enough sight in the season of Mardi Gras, when the February dark fell early and the muddy streets of the old French town had been rioting since five o'clock with revelers-white, black, and colored, slave and free, French and American-bedizened in every variation of evening costume or fancy dress. God knew there were women enough yanking men off the high brick banquettes into doorways and carriage gates and public houses on Rue Royale and Rue Bourbon and all over the old quarter tonight. He wondered what Titian or Rembrandt would have made of the composition; he was turning politely to go when the woman screamed.