Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Benjamin January

Go To
Long-running Historical Detective Fiction series by Barbara Hambly, detailing the crime-solving adventures of Benjamin January (or "Janvier" if you happen to be in the Vieux Carré) in New Orleans of the 1830s. Benjamin was born a slave in the Louisiana cane plantations, but his mother was purchased and freed as a placée (a status somewhere between wife and mistress, denoting a legal relationship between a white man and a woman of color) when he was still young; her benefactor also freed her children into the bargain. As a result, January receives a classical education in Paris, and trains as a surgeon and a musician. He returns to New Orleans after the death of his wife, and promptly is thrown into webs of intrigue, politics and the occasional murder, along with his companions: dissolute Irish violinist Hannibal Sefton, Lt. Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans City Guard, and a motley roster of characters of all professions and colors.

The series to date includes:

  • A Free Man of Color
  • Fever Season
  • Graveyard Dust
  • Sold Down the River
  • Die Upon a Kiss
  • Wet Grave
  • Days of the Dead
  • Dead Water
  • Dead and Buried
  • The Shirt On His Back
  • Ran Away
  • Good Man Friday
  • Crimson Angel
  • Drinking Gourd
  • Murder in July
  • Cold Bayou
  • Lady of Perdition

There are also several short stories, available for purchase on Hambly's website:

  • "Libre"
  • "There Shall Your Heart Be Also"
  • "A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven"
  • "Hagar"
  • "Death on the Moon"


This series includes the following tropes:

  • Aerith and Bob: Backwoods trappers Tom and Johnny Shaw have a brother named Abishag.
  • Amateur Sleuth: January is a surgeon and a talented musician, who often finds himself pulled into solving mysteries due to his connections among all classes of New Orleans society.
  • Arc Words: "The custom of the country" - when explaining (usually bitterly) some aspect of the entrenched racialized class system of antebellum New Orleans.
  • Asshole Victim: Everyone who dies in Days of the Dead.
  • The Big Easy: Circa 1830, as seen through the eyes of the mixed-race population.
  • Black and Nerdy: Rose and her students. Arguably January fits the trope as well.
  • But Not Too Black: Discussed in detail. New Orleans' mixed-race society and all the divisions of color therewith feature prominently throughout the books. January himself is griffe (three-quarters black), along with his full sister Olympe; his mother Livia is mulatto (half black), while his half-sister Dominique is quadroon (three-quarters white).
  • Advertisement:
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: January has a bad case.
  • Clear My Name / Clear Their Name: January often finds himself a suspect in the cases he investigates (often due only to his race), and has had to clear the names of Rose, Hannibal, Olympe, and other friends and relatives.
  • Costume Porn: Ayasha, January's deceased first wife, was a seamstress, which allows him to recognize the particular baubles on a dead woman's Carnival costume in A Free Man of Color.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Enduring life in a highly racist society tends to cultivate sarcasm and Gallows Humor.
  • Disappeared Dad: January never saw his father again after being sold and freed as a child, but he always wondered what became of him. He eventually finds out in Sold Down the River.
  • Disguised in Drag: Rose does this on occasion.
    • "Doña Viola d'Illyria" in Days of the Dead.
  • Distressed Dude: Hannibal. It's a rare book that doesn't require January to rescue him at some point.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: January to Rose, initially.
  • Dreaming the Truth: In Ran Away, Benjamin January dreams of his dead wife asking where Sabid is — which causes him to consider whether Sabid might actually be in New Orleans, making trouble again for the same man he attacked years ago.
  • Eagle-Eye Detection: See under Costume Porn for just one example.
  • Faking the Dead: Hannibal Sefton decided that his wife and son would do better if he permanently removed himself from their lives.
  • The Fettered: January, either figuratively (even though he's free, the law prevents him from striking a white man) or literally (he's captured and chained for a slave on several occasions).
  • Flashback: Almost half of Ran Away is a flashback to events during January's time in Paris with Ayasha.
  • Frame-Up: January has found himself the victim of several (see Clear My Name). People of color, particularly those like January with darker skin, are often used as convenient scapegoats in this setting.
  • French Jerk: The nefarious doings, general perfidy and lack of social class of "les sales Américains" (the dirty Americans) are frequent and popular subjects of discussion in New Orleans' Francophone community.
  • Friend on the Force: Lieutenant Shaw.
  • Genius Bruiser: Our hero is an accomplished concert pianist and surgeon, speaks six languages and is well read in the classics. He also took boxing lessons in his youth.
  • Germanic Efficiency: Augustus Mayerling, a locally known Prussian fencing master, plays this trope in spades.
  • Heat Wave: In Fever Season.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many, including a young Jefferson Davies, Santa Anna, and Kit Carson, as well as real historical residents of New Orleans from the period.
  • Historical Detective Fiction: Much of the premise of the work.
  • Historical Fiction: Set in Antebellum America New Orleans.
  • Historical In-Joke: Lots.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: Hannibal tries to tell January this as they make their escape from an Indian tribe in The Shirt On His Back; January will have none of it.
  • Inconvenient Hippocratic Oath: January will not use his skills as a surgeon to harm anyone, no matter how much they deserve it.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That: The strict legal and social rules (the "Code Noir") limiting how blacks can act in relation to white citizens means Abishag Shaw sometimes finds it necessary to have been conveniently looking away from some action of January's.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Hannibal's tuberculosis, which is treated quite realistically.
  • It's Always Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Averted. Only two books feature Mardi Gras, and the seasons of southern Louisiana are discussed in detail.
  • Kentucky Fried Genius: Lieutenant Abishag Shaw, despite looking like a hillbilly scarecrow, dressing like he hasn't two nickels to rub together, and talking like Huck Finn on steroids, also speaks fluent French and is an extraordinarily competent and honest police officer.
  • The Lost Lenore: Ayasha, the hero's wife, who died shortly before the beginning of the series. Eleven books and five years later, her (happily remarried) husband still mourns for her.
  • Magical Negro: A few people in the series, usually the Americans, believe January to be this. The concept of a black man being classically educated, as a surgeon no less, is utterly incomprehensible to people who think the only uses for black people are as field-hands and house servants. Hence, January is the go-to guy for everything from Mardi Gras costumes to murder mysteries.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: The system of placage, the term for a legal contracted relationship between a white man and a free woman of color. Placées occupy a status somewhere between wife and mistress, but they are frequently paid off and set aside when the white man in question marries. However, it's still expected that the man will educate and support any children that result from the match.
  • Murder by Mistake: Angelique Crozat in A Free Man of Color. This thoroughly confuses everything, since it's not until very late in the book that January realizes that he's trying to solve the wrong murder.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Abishag Shaw knows the French and Creole population of New Orleans consider Americans far below them in intelligence and class, and uses their prejudice to his own advantage. Benjamin himself is skilled at turning racial prejudice to his own advantage.
  • Off the Wagon: Hannibal, several times.
  • Once per Episode: The plot frequently forces January to go on a dangerous trip away from the story's main setting, usually near the end of the book.
  • Pass Fail:
    • Drusilla d'Isola in Die Upon A Kiss is pretending to be Italian rather than colored.
    • The subject receives more focus in Dead and Buried as various people either threaten exposure or try to prevent the secret from getting out. It's made clear that exposure of someone who is passing will socially and financially ruin everyone in the family, even people who were not passing and had no idea what was going on.
  • The Pig-Pen: Technically, Shaw is an exceptionally Dirty Cop.
  • Readers Are Geniuses: There's plenty of untranslated Greek, Latin and French.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: It's not a matter of if January will pray to the Virgin Mary for help in any given book, only when. If it gets really bad he asks the loa as well.
  • Renaissance Man: Meet Benjamin January, Paris-trained surgeon, concert pianist and part-time detective. His buddies Hannibal Sefton and Abishag Shaw also fit the trope.
    • As a schoolteacher and natural scientist who grew up in the country, Rose's skills include translating Greek literature, making bombs, herding cows and, when necessary, shooting rifles. She also cleans up nicely.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Franz Bodenschatz a/k/a Frank Boden, in The Shirt On His Back was willing to kill hundreds of traders and trappers to get his revenge on the man who allegedly killed his sister in a fit of madness. When Shaw's brother winds up dead as a result of being caught in said Roaring Rampage, the crew leaves New Orleans and heads west to exact justice on his killer.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Olympe has a wicked sense of wit, and is not above tweaking her "downtown" brother about his white friends and cultured demeanor.
  • Scary Black Man: January can play himself off as this, being 6'3" and built like a brick outhouse. He usually doesn't, being fettered by the Code Noir, which among other things prevents anyone of color from striking or threatening harm on any white person.
    • Played straight with Big Lou in Die Upon a Kiss.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: January is Manly Man to Hannibal (by virtue of his size, strength and leadership skills) and Sensitive Guy to Shaw (since he's emotional and generally has a people-centred approach to any problem).
  • Shout-Out: To Shakespeare: No chapter is complete without at least one.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Rose, which enables her to play Blue Oni to January's Red.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Augustus Mayerling. Hannibal is the only one to figure it out, on account of a laudanum-induced Sweet on Polly Oliver moment.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: January has to constantly fight the urge to tell Rose to stay behind where it's safe; he nearly always succeeds.
  • Translation Convention: Most characters in the series speak both French and English, and readily alternate between the two - however, the dialogue is usually rendered in English.
  • Tsundere: Ayasha, apparently.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: January can't propose to Rose because they're too poor to set up a household. When they come into money, he does so immediately.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: Heavily deconstructed. Several of the colored characters in the series intentionally play this to avoid white suspicion, and the difficulty of pretending to be an uneducated idiot for the benefit of an actual uneducated idiot who just happens to be white is discussed in detail.
  • The Un-Favourite: January and Olympe to their mother.
  • We Help the Helpless: Yup, that would be January and his friends again. The Faubourg Tremé Free Colored Militia and Burial Society, of which January is on the board of directors, also performs the same service within the demimonde - it's their role and subsequent intervention in a funeral gone wrong that kicks off Dead and Buried.