Barbara Hambly’s series of historical mysteries set in 1830s New Orleans are exceptional for their deep sense of setting, their intriguing continuing characters, their direct confrontations with racism, and just plain page-turning storytelling. But besides being terrific mysteries, there are great secondary characters, and a satisfying ongoing romance between detective Benjamin January and scholar Rose Vitrac.
I first picked up these books because I was a fan of the author, Barbara Hambly, through her fantasy novels, but I was also intrigued by the historical setting. The first novel in the series is A Free Man of Color. New Orleans of that period had three main classes: the white people (both French and Americans), slaves, and free people of color, who had their own strict hierarchies within their class—for instance, a light-skinned, free colored person would usually have more status than a free colored person who, like Benjamin, was very dark-skinned. The white Americans and the white Creoles had a strong distaste for each other; some of the free colored, such as Benjamin’s own mother, a former slave, looked down on slaves or even owned slaves themselves. To add to the tension, any free colored person was in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery far from home, taken to a place where there were no free people of African descent.
A great deal of the conflict in the novels arises from oppositions between these various groups. Benjamin is frequently in danger because of his race, and in particular when he goes undercover as a slave in Sold Down the River. Often, it’s his understanding of how this complex society works that helps him to uncover motives for murder. The different segments of society add to the mysteries in fascinating ways; for instance, a slave’s view of a particular white planter is very different from that of Creole society’s view. Benjamin’s ability to move discreetly between and among different segments is one of his largest advantages as a detective. There’s additional tension because Benjamin spent a number of years in Paris, and sometimes regrets his return to his much more circumscribed life in New Orleans. His investigations are sometimes interrupted or nearly stymied because of racism.
Benjamin’s love interest, Rose Vitrac, first appears in the second novel of the series, Fever Season.
Though Benjamin makes his living as a musician and piano teacher, he was trained in France as a surgeon; during a summer epidemic of yellow fever and cholera, he takes shifts at Charity Hospital. Rose bucks a whole raft of conventions by running a school for girls of color, one which teaches a female student Greek, Latin, and science, instead of how to catch a white “protector” who will set her up as his mistress, or placée. Rose is herself the daughter and granddaughter of placées, so it’s unheard of for her to be a scholar, much less to teach girls to also be scholars. When girls at her school fall ill, she seeks out Benjamin to help her nurse them.
At this point in the series, Benjamin is still mourning his first wife, Ayasha, who died several years before. However, Benjamin and Rose turn out to have a great deal in common beyond a mutual friend, Hannibal Sefton. Both are pursuing lifestyles that seem odd to their peers, both are educated, and both have suffered a great deal of pain and loss. Though at first their relationship seems to be a minor subplot to the novel, it soon becomes clear that Rose is very closely involved with the mystery. Benjamin realizes how much he’s come to care for her, and how quickly, when his pursuit of solving a series of mysterious disappearances puts both of them into grave danger. By the novel’s end, Rose has been partly responsible for rescuing Benjamin from serious trouble, but due to a traumatic event in her past, she isn’t quite ready to commit to anything more than friendship.
For several books, their friendship is present, deep and intimate whenever it appears. Benjamin wants more, and is frustrated that Rose cannot feel the same, particularly in scenes from Die Upon a Kiss, in which Benjamin is playing in the orchestra for an opera and Rose is using her chemistry skills to make fireworks for the production. The slow deepening of emotional ties while Rose tries to keep her distance out of fear reads a bit like Lord Peter Wimsey’s pursuit of Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’ novels, though the plot’s main focus always remains on the mystery, and we only get Benjamin’s point of view.
In Wet Grave, things begin to change. Benjamin’s frustration with Rose’s nervousness is brought to a head when he’s unable to protect her from an episode of near-violence. He dreams repeatedly of Rose in danger from which he cannot protect her. Rose does not want to be protected. However, being the hero of a detective series, and Rose being the sort to always join him in his adventures, he has to come to terms with this, even as they experience more loss together, and their new sexual relationship ups the emotional stakes. By the end of Wet Grave, they are at last able to marry. Rose is a bigger part of the subsequent novels, and I hope that continues!
As much as I love the setting of these novels and their historical detail, the characters are far more important to me. Benjamin, Rose, and their friend Hannibal Sefton are all outsiders in several different ways; even Benjamin’s police contact, Abishag Shaw, is an outsider because he’s a working-class American around mostly upper-class Creoles. Throughout the series, the bonds between outsider characters prove to be stronger and more important than conventional relationships, and show how people who were different from the norm negotiate such a hierarchical, hypocritical society. Benjamin and his friends are always the underdogs of their world, and as such, it’s hard not to root for them.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.