No doubt plenty of serial-mystery detectives have been introduced to their readers with a dramatic courtroom scene. But how many were being arraigned on bounced-check charges thanks to their employer's skipping town? There is only one Blanche White, the irreverent, middle-aged, African American domestic worker and occasional cook who, along with being a full-time mother, is also a part-time amateur sleuth--the inimitable creation of writer Barbara Neely. With her debut novel in 1992, Neely joined a growing number of female African American mystery writers who are gaining a wide audience with their compelling whodunits set in black America. But even among her peers, Neely is unique. You might say she has demystified the mystery by delivering a thoroughly engaging protagonist who not only solves the crime, but who also exhibits familiar foibles and strengths, believes in kitchen-table wisdom, and possesses a wicked sense of humor. As Kate Mattes, owner of Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, puts it, "Blanche could be a friend. When I read the books I feel as though she's talking to me."
The keep-it-real ethic of Neely's writing is a natural outgrowth of the author's down-to-earth nature and her fierce commitment to political activism, her profession before she turned to writing full-time. She created Blanche while suffering writer's block with another project, and no one was more surprised than Neely when her first book, Blanche on the Lam (St. Martin's Press, 1992), grew into a top mystery series. "I thought I was writing a novel that happened to have murder in it. Blanche was an amusement," Neely says. "But when the book did so well, I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects, and it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write. In a way, I feel the genre chose me."
This happy accident of form meeting function has resulted in four books thus far. In Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (St. Martin's Press, 1994), Neely's second stab at the genre, her hero gets a chance to vacation at a hoity-toity, all-black resort in Maine, where, along with trying to find a connection between a suicide and a possible murder, the "eggplant-black" Blanche encounters color and class pigeonholing within the black community. And in Blanche Cleans Up (Viking/Penguin, 1998), the sharp-eyed domestic worker-cum-sleuth inadvertently gets involved in a political scandal, before literally and figuratively cleaning up. As she winds her way in and out of sticky situations, Blanche reveals a healthy dose of attitude. Neely writes in Blanche Cleans Up, "Once in a while she'd been messed with so badly, she'd had to let her finger slip into somebody's drink, put too much salt or hot pepper in the eggs rancheros, or add a couple of tablespoons of cat food to the beef bourguignonne."
Not quite the nuances you might expect from your average gumshoe. Says Neely, "I wanted to provide a perspective rarely seen in fiction, that of a poor, black domestic woman." This she has done to the delight of mystery readers hungry for a hero of substance. Neely's eye for the literary detail that reveals as much about the human condition as it does about murder has led some to compare Blanche to no less than Langston Hughes's classic character, Jesse B. Semple, from his Simple stories. As writer Ntzoke Shange has been quoted as saying, "[Blanche] rivals Simple in her insight, political savvy, and humor on the ways of white folk."
Translated into French, German, and Japanese, the books have brought Neely major critical and academic recognition, along with literary awards such as the Agatha, the Macavity, and the Anthony, three of the four major U.S. mystery prizes for best first novel. Neely's fourth book in the series, Blanche Passes Go, where Blanche, a rape survivor herself, tackles issues of battery and rape, is due to be published in July by Viking/Penguin.
Born 56 years ago in a small town in Pennsylvania, Neely comes from a family of readers and local activists--people who read not just for entertainment, but also to understand how worlds they weren't a part of worked. "I grew up with the idea I ought to be able to do anything I wanted to do." She says, "I was encouraged to write, though it didn't occur to me people made a living at it. But I've always kept a journal and in the sixties, I wrote extremely bad poetry."
The sixties were also when Neely first ventured into activism. While working as a medical typist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, she got involved with the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. She began giving talks on black history at schools and from there, became an organizer at the Philadelphia Tutorial Project, working with gangs and housing issues in the black community. Thinking she could use a degree in urban planning, Neely headed to the University of Pittsburgh. Her master's thesis focused on women and incarceration, and landed her a job with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections as designer and director of the first community-based correctional facility for women in Pennsylvania. When her partner took a teaching job in Boston in the mid-1980s, Neely followed.
Throughout her career as an activist, Neely had been honing her writing skills. She'd created stories as gifts for friends and had one published by Essence magazine. With the move to Boston, she began to more fully explore the pull of the pen. "I didn't take myself seriously as a writer until I was in my thirties; then the understanding came to me that a full life would mean doing something I was absolutely in love with doing, whether it paid or not." Now writing full time, Neely is still a committed activist--an identity that's amply evident throughout the books. "I'm not sure my message isn't polemical," Neely admits, "so I rewrite and rewrite so that it's always Blanche, not Barbara, talking. You can't call yourself a mystery writer without understanding how the genre works. On the other hand, for me the question isn't 'Have I got the clues right?' but 'What would Mrs. Buffalo who lived across the street from me do about this?'
"I see Blanche both as an everyday black woman and as an agent for change," Neely continues. "She's a behavioral feminist!" But, when asked if she feels women are such avid readers of mysteries because the genre offers them the "dream of justice," Neely snaps, "Anyone looking for justice in a book needs to sign up with an organization and make it happen in the world! There's very little justice in the Blanche books; they're reality based."
Neely's had a number of movie offers, but fearing her beloved character will be turned into "an Aunt Jemima, or someone lighter, thinner, younger, and cuter," she has turned them all down. She's not interested in writing the screenplay herself, either. "I've already imagined it in the form it's in," she says. "My stuff is always about what's going on in the black community, because that's who Blanche is. It's interesting to me that academic papers have been written on Blanche. But I'd like to hope, too, that women who have domestic help will, after reading a Blanche book, look at the woman vacuuming the floor and see her as a person, rather than as a function, and act accordingly."
Ann Collette is a contributing editor to "Fiction Writer" magazine.
Photography by Asia Kepka