This week’s featured writer is Barbara Neely (b. 1941), the author of four books featuring Blanche White, a domestic-cum-amateur detective; in order of publication, Blanche on the Lam (1992), Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994), Blanche Cleans Up (1998), and Blanche Passes Go (2000). (I have read the first three and will read the fourth the next time I take a mystery break.) Ms. Neely didn’t start her career as a writer. Although she states that she always had an interest writing, she received her master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 as a non-traditional student. She worked for many years as an activist:
Until the publication of her first novel in 1992, Neely led the very demanding life of a community activist. Formerly the director of the Massachusetts-based Women for Economic Justice, she resigned in 1992, becoming cochair of the organization’s board of directors to allow more time for her writing. Neely was also a founding member of Women of Color for Reproductive Freedom and is a member of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Arts Council. Overview: Barbara Neely
Neely also designed and directed Pennsylvania’s first community-based correctional facility for women; worked with union activists in Boston to improve the working conditions of hotel chambermaids; earned another masters, this time in creative writing, from U-Mass; has been a radio show host; was a director of a YMCA; and a served as a Family Services Coordinator with a Head Start program. It should come as no surprise that her activism is reflected in her writing.
Blanche on the Lam: It’s hard enough making ends meet on the pittance Blanche White earns doing day work for the genteel Southern families of North Carolina. But when her fourth bad check lands her a jail sentence, Blanche goes on the lam. Inadvertently, she finds work at the summer home of a wealthy family, the members of which have plenty of their own secrets. And when a dead body is discovered, Blanche finds herself the prime suspect. Using her wit and intelligence -not to mention the remarkably efficient old-girl network among domestic workers -she gets to work uncovering the real killer before she lands in more hot water. (This book won Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards.)
Blanche Among the Talented Tenth: When Blanche White moved north to Boston, she believed it would be a better place to raise her kids, especially after she got them into an elite private school. But now her children are becoming elitist and judgmental, acquiring more attitude than education. So when she and her kids are invited to Amber Cove, an exclusive resort in Maine for wealthy blacks, Blanche jumps at the chance to see how the other half lives and maybe stop her kids turning into people she doesn’t want to know. When one of the guests kills himself, and another is electrocuted in her bathtub, Blanche becomes an accidental detective once again, using her sharp wit and keen social insight to peel back some disturbing color and class distinctions within the black community that may have driven someone to murder.
Blanche Cleans Up: Sassy, smart, with a keen nose for trouble, black maid-cum-snoop extraordinaire Blanche White is in Boston–filling in as cook-housekeeper for an arrogant politician and his family. On her very first day on the job at the place she has dubbed “Prozac House,” Blanche somehow manages to overhear her employer trying to pin an unsolved murder on a young black friend. Soon Blanche is hot on the trail to clear the boy’s name and finds herself tangled up in a scandal of secrets, social issues, community politics, even extortion–and at least one person who doesn’t mean her any good. This time Blanche see more than she ever wanted to–but she also cleans up–in more ways than one. (From the back cover of the paperback edition)
Blanche Passes Go: Blanche White returns to Farleigh, North Carolina for the summer to help her best friend with her catering business. It’s a homecoming rich with the potential for new romance and fraught with the pain of facing the man who raped her at knife-point years ago but was never prosecuted for the crime. Shortly after Blanche arrives, a young woman is murdered and the clues point to the rapist. Blanche investigates, determined not to let him get away with another crime… nor is she willing to let his money-hungry sister marry a sweet, mentally-challenged man for his wealth. With her usual persistence, feisty wit, and indomitable spirit, her quest for the truth reveals the racism and sexism that still permeate the new south, but also the conflicts that divide her own family…and that might prevent her from accepting the love she so richly deserves.
Reaction and excerpts
I don’t suggest reading the Blanche series if you’re looking for a Golden Era mystery replete with country villagers (all of whom are white), red herrings, a kindly cop who may or may not be inept, and a gentle, but nosey, amateur detective. In fact, as I progressed through the stories, the mystery became secondary. As one profile of Ms. Neely pointed out:
The books are not traditional mysteries. In the first, the murder victim doesn’t appear until a hundred pages into the novel. In the next, the murder is never even solved, Neely said. “Readers ask me and I don’t know.” Blanche White, maid turned sleuth in ’90s murder mystery series, is back
What you get instead with Blanche is a bold truth-teller; a person with a keen awareness of injustice; and a strong, independent woman who struggles to do the right thing while working “among those who disdained her to death.” You also get ongoing social commentary, whether it is tackling stereotypes of the Black Mammy figure; the issue of colorism in the African-American community; environmental racism; the criminalization of the black male; or conflicted attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. What keeps the books from becoming mere polemics is Blanche herself. She’s irreverent, caustic but also compassionate, proud, and damn funny. She makes it clear that when she’s with “whitefolk,” she is well aware that she is living out what W.E.B. DuBois called “double consciousness”:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. “The Veil” and “Double Consciousness”
But Blanche does it with her eyes wide open:
Mammy-savers regularly peeped out at her from faces of some white women for whom she worked, and lately, in this age of the touchy-feely model of manhood, an occasional white man. It happened when an employer was struck by family disaster or grew too compulsive about owning everything, to over-wrought, or downright frightened by who and what they were. She never ceased to be amazed at how many white people longed for Aunt Jemima. …She told employers who asked what she would do in their place, or what she thought they ought to do, “I sure wish I knew, I truly do,” accompanied by a slow, sad smile, a matching shake of her head, and arms folded tightly across her chest. (Blanche on the Lam, pp. 39-40)
Blanche also has her eyes wide open about her own family and community:
It was as though her mother had suddenly stepped outside of that turn-the-other-cheek fantasy land she and so many other older people Blanche knew seemed to live in. But then, why should I be surprised? she asked herself. This is how we’ve survived in the country all this time, by knowing when to act like we believe what we’ve been told and when to act like we know what we know. (Blanche on the Lam, p. 73)
Sometimes, her anger is at full boil:
It wasn’t enough that the man had been treated like a machine, robbed of respect, and kept poor all of his life. It wasn’t enough that his time had been owned by other people who also decided how high he could raise his eyes and his voice, and where he could live and how. He also had to be murdered over some white people’s shit that didn’t have a damned thing to do with him. (Blanche on the Lam, p. 148)
And at other times, she settles for hard-earned humor:
For a moment, the whole room stared at her as though she was a horse in their bathroom. They were no more shocked than she. Had it been the same in the bar and she just hadn’t noticed? …That leaves me, Blanche White, race representative, she laughed to herself, and was pleased to be able to find the humor in being the only guest present with any true color. She played with the fantasy of falling down on one knee and belting out a chorus of “Mammy” to see if any of them fainted. (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, p. 40)
But always, Blanche understands and loves her community, flaws and all:
The kitchen was under the control of a quartet of women Blanche thought of as part of The Regulars–the women in the community who always helped the sick, made sure all the food a grieving family could use was prepared and presented, made sure their street was kept clean. They were the women she always thought of when she heard some right-wing jackass–black or white–going on about black people needed to do for themselves instead of blah, blah, blah. If we didn’t do for ourselves, she thought, we’d all be dead by now. (Blanche Cleans Up, pp. 239-240)
I really like Blanche, and I hope this little tease will encourage you to seek out her stories. The books were out-of-print for awhile, but Brash Books (Brash Books) reprinted them; they are now available as iBooks, for Kindles or Nooks, or through many used-booksellers. (I bought my used copies through betterworldbooks.com)
Next week: It’s anybody’s guess, but if I get my reading done in time, it will be a theme brought to you by Blanche.