Review: A Free Man of Color

Posted by Cyn | Posted in Reading | Posted on 02-03-2010

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A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January, Book 1) A Free Man of Col­or by Bar­bara Ham­bly

My rat­ing: 4 of 5 stars
His­tor­i­cal fic­tion isn’t my favorite genre, but I’m much more will­ing to read it when it’s mixed with mys­tery. I’ve read some of Ham­bly’s work before and know her to be a fine writer, and I’d read good reviews of this series by peo­ple I respect, so I decid­ed to give it a whirl.

I sup­pose all the descrip­tions of peo­ple’s cloth­ing would have mat­tered much more to some­one who cared about such things, but I do real­ize that they were impor­tant in the con­text of the sto­ry. Per­son­al­ly, I was relieved when the main char­ac­ter went on a jour­ney! I would have been hap­pi­er had his med­ical skills been uti­lized more fre­quent­ly than they were, but I sup­pose his expe­ri­ences were fair­ly true to life for a “col­ored” man of his time.

I did learn quite a lot—things that I intend to ver­i­fy in non-fic­tion sources short­ly. The infor­ma­tion about the black code, for instance, and the expla­na­tion of the dis­tinc­tion between “black” and “col­ored” peo­ple seemed too pre­cise to be fab­ri­cat­ed.

I knew, too, that Louisiana is the only U.S. state whose laws are based on French rather than Eng­lish com­mon law, which seemed sil­ly to me. Why would­n’t they go with the stan­dard every­one else used? After read­ing this nov­el, I’m start­ing to real­ize that there may have been rights giv­en to cit­i­zens under French law that were lost under Eng­lish law.

I’m not sure as to whether or not I’ll go for­ward in the series, as I’m not sure that I can han­dle the unhap­pi­ness I can see fore­shad­owed even in some of the titles. How­ev­er, I will say that this vol­ume is well-writ­ten and well-plot­ted. I cer­tain­ly did­n’t guess who the killer was or why the mur­der was com­mit­ted before the big reveal, and that was a pleas­ant change!

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Comments (2)

As much as I love these books, some very, very bad stuff hap­pens. The series (at least so far as I’ve read) has some of the fea­tures of a cozy: same set­ting and char­ac­ters, the char­ac­ters and sto­ries devel­op over the course of the series while each book stands alone as a mys­tery. But this series does­n’t have the usu­al guar­an­teed hap­py end­ing. This isn’t to say the end­ing is always depress­ing. The books tend more toward real­is­tic end­ings than tidy end­ings.

That’s what I’m afaid of! I’m okay with real­is­tic end­ings when I’m pre­pared for them, like in the Eve Dal­las series. But not in a cozy! And the sorts of things that can hap­pen to a dark-skinned man in that era are just too dark for me, after com­ing to iden­ti­fy with him so strong­ly.

I’m in denial and I know it, but that’s part of my “put good things in” self-pro­tec­tion strat­e­gy. If I can’t con­sume some­thing and main­tain that dis­tance, I don’t con­sume it — it’s the only rea­son I can man­age to watch things like CSI, because they just aren’t that real to me. If they were bet­ter made, I would­n’t be watch­ing them.

I guess I’m say­ing Bar­bara Ham­bly is too good a writer for me to keep read­ing these, com­pared to J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts? How’s that for a back-hand­ed com­pli­ment?

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