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Your Just Desserts hiatus reading assignment – 2014: The Benjamin January series

freemanofcolorJust Desserts Logo 225November 07, 2014 by sdc

During the Nov/Dec 2014 hiatus between meetings of the Just Desserts mystery fiction discussion group, we encourage regular attendees to continue to participate as a group…but in a virtual way. While we may not have an actual meeting scheduled during these two months, this blog is available to keep everyone active with their mystery reading and discussions.

Our “hiatus assignment” for 2014 is the “Benjamin January” series by author Barbara Hambly. Comprised of thirteen volumes, published between 1997’s first volume (A Free Man of Color), and 2014’s latest volume (Crimson Angel). Barbara Hambly was first published in 1982, and has been a prolific writer of genre fiction, including not just mysteries but also science fiction and fantasy. Her “Benjamin January” series is considered to be among the best of all of her works. This series was described as follows on Wikipedia:

“This historical mystery series begins with A Free Man of Color (1997) and features Benjamin January, a brilliant, classically educated, free colored surgeon and musician living in New Orleans during the antebellum years of the 1830s. At the time, New Orleans had a large and prosperous population of free people of color. Born a slave, as his mother was enslaved, January was freed as a young child by his mother’s lover, under the plaçage system. Provided with an excellent education, he gained fluency in several classical and modern languages, and was thoroughly versed in the whole of classical Western learning and arts. He studied medicine in Paris, where he trained as a surgeon. He returned to Louisiana to escape the memory of his late wife, a woman from North Africa. As a free black in Louisiana, he cannot find work as a surgeon. He earns a modest living by his exceptional talent as a musician.

Each title is a murder mystery, with a complex plot and well-developed characters. Each explores many aspects of French Creole and overall Louisiana society. 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 by enslaved labor (Sold Down the River).

Important themes of the series are 1) the cultural clash between the rising Protestant English-speaking Anglo-Americans, and the declining Catholic, French-speaking Creoles, 2) skin color discrimination within the society of Creoles of color, with favor given to lighter-skinned persons 3) January’s bitterness at the many forms of racial injustice he observes, 4) the complex, partially race-based sexual politics of colonial French and United States society, and 5) January’s comparison of what he thinks of as the open and frank African outlook of his early childhood with the more restrained and rational European worldview he acquired through education and experience. This last theme occurs most often with respect to music, spirituality, and respect for law and social custom.”

We encourage Just Desserts participants to read any of the 13 books in this series, at some point in November or December 2014, then come back here to this blog post and leave a comment about whatever you read or watched, as a response to this discussion topic.

  • 1. A Free Man of Color (1997)
  • 2. Fever Season (1998)
  • 3. Graveyard Dust (1999)
  • 4. Sold Down the River (2000)
  • 5. Die upon a Kiss (2001)
  • 6. Wet Grave (2002)
  • 7. Days of the Dead (2003)
  • 8. Dead Water (2004)
  • 9. Dead and Buried (2011)
  • 10. The Shirt on His Back (2011)
  • 11. Ran Away (2011)
  • 12. Good Man Friday (2013)
  • 13. Crimson Angel (2014)

As a bit of background, here are some links to Barbara Hambly information:

We look forward to seeing your comments here over the course of the next two months!

So…here’s your question:

Which of the “Benjamin January” novels did you read, and what was your opinion?

Scott C. – Just Desserts coordinator and host

3 thoughts on “Your Just Desserts hiatus reading assignment – 2014: The Benjamin January series

  1. Scott Clark

    On November 20 2014, group member Betty left the following comment on this Just Desserts blog post in its original location:
    Betty Misener said:
    I read Good Man Friday. It was my first Benjamin January novel. I found it extremely well written. At times I could feel the injustice and terror a free man of color must have experienced at the time as if I were right there as well. Very good read! I will read others of the series!”

    June 30, 2015 at 12:06 pm
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  3. Scott Clark

    On January 5 2015, group member Cathy left the following comment on this Just Desserts blog post, in its original location:
    Cathy Tallon said:
    I read the first book, A Free Man of Color. I think this explains a lot about New Orleans and how easily prejudice is learned. It was a good read and a good mystery and I would read more.”

    June 30, 2015 at 12:07 pm
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  5. Scott Clark

    On January 16 2015, group member Mary left the following comment on this Just Desserts blog post, in its original location:
    Mary DeWitt said:
    I always enjoy good historical fiction and so I was interested to read the Benjamin January books. I read A Free Man of Color and Wet grave. Both were good mysteries, although I got lost in the history sometimes and had to look for the story line again. She chose an interesting time period and certainly worked hard at giving us a good background. I will be looking for another of her books later.”

    June 30, 2015 at 12:08 pm

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