Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Blanche on the Lam: Barbara Neely

Blanche White is an African-American woman in North Carolina working as a housekeeper. This puts many restraints on her behavior. She cannot speak out and share her opinions, at the risk of offending her employers and losing her job. She has little recourse if she is not paid on time or at all. But in this story, Blanche is hampered even more. She is literally "on the lam." She has run away from a one-month jail sentence for bouncing checks, and is working for a family vacationing in a coastal area near the town she lives in. If she leaves that position she is likely to be found and sent to jail. So, when she finds she is trapped in a situation with some very strange and nefarious people, Blanche cannot just leave.


Blanche has both strengths and weaknesses, like anyone else. She takes pride in her job and knows she does it well. She has taken on the role of parent to her niece and nephew following the death of her sister. On the other hand, she is too self-sufficient sometimes, doesn't like to ask for help, which leads to the mess with the bounced checks. She has some quirks. She personifies houses, sensing their personalities and feelings. She has the ability to sense when some people, who are on her "wavelength," are approaching. She makes sense of a person's behavior by comparing them to a friend or relative who has the same traits (similar to Miss Marple?).

Blanche on the Lam is first and foremost a story about relations between blacks and whites, and secondarily a murder mystery. As the author noted in an article in Ms. Magazine:

"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."

I found this to be a very enlightening and enjoyable novel, but only so-so as a mystery. The story is told from Blanche's point of view in first person. It took me a while (50 pages) to get used to the writing style and Blanche's character, then I enjoyed the rest of the book. I think the real pleasure of reading this book is getting Blanche's view on white people and how they mistreat, misjudge, or just look through black people.

This novel was full of great quotes. My favorite quote:
Nowadays, people wanted to tell you class didn't exist and color didn't matter anymore. Look at Miss America and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Miss America and the chairman were no more black people than Mother Teresa was white people. Men like Nate [the gardener] and women like her were the people, the folks, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that built everything.
I had some reservations about this book, but not serious ones. Although I understood the panic that Blanche felt at facing even a few weeks in jail, running away seemed unlikely. On the other hand, we often need to suspend disbelief when reading mystery novels, and I was willing to do that with this story. Blanche is a fully developed character, but the people she interacts with are more one-dimensional. Amateur sleuths are not my favorite protagonists in crime fiction, and in this case we are over halfway through the book before we get to the first murder.

Barbara Neely is an African-American writer. Prior to writing full-time, she was an activist and at one time worked for Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections and developed the state's first community based correctional center for women.

Blanche on the Lam won three mystery awards for best first novel of 1992: The Agatha, the Anthony and the Macavity. Neely published three more books in the Blanche White series between 1994 and 2000.

Other resources:
Moira's review at Clothes in Books, Margot's Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., and Naomi Hirahara's post at the Rap Sheet.


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Publisher:  Penguin Books, 1993. Orig. pub. 1992.
Length:     215 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Blanche White, #1
Setting:     North Carolina
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy in 2006.

14 comments:

  1. Glad you read this book. I've read all four books in the series and loved them. Was dismayed when the author stopped writing the series.

    The books are very realistic.

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    1. I agree that the books are realistic, Kathy, Blanche just does a lot of things I would not have the nerve to do. I already have book 2 in the series. I ordered it immediately after I finished this book.

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  2. Must make sure to read her series. I bought this book a couple of years ago. -K.

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    1. Good to hear from you, Keishon. You definitely need to read this series eventually. It made me mad and sad at times, but nothing really surprised me.

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  3. Thank you, Tracy, for the link to my post. I'm very glad you enjoyed the book; I've always thought this was a fine series.

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    1. I don't know why it took me so long to start reading this series, Margot, but now I still have her next three books to read.

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  4. Another one I have sitting on the pile....one day!

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    1. I am sure you will enjoy this when you read it one day, Col.

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  5. Never ready her work though I used to see it on shelves all the time, though admittedly I was usually looking for suspense fiction by Richard Neely :)

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    1. That is funny, Sergio. I was not familiar with Richard Neely and of course I looked him up and his books sound very interesting.

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  6. Had not heard of Barbara Neely or the Blanche series, Tracy, but Blanche sound like a character I could get to like.

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    1. Definitely, Mathew. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama (left when I was around 23) and my parents were in favor of integration when I was a child (but not vocal about it, not activists by any means). My family was very, very far away from the economic level that Blanche deals with in this book. Yet even today I don't feel that things have changed greatly. Reading this was a very interesting experience for me.

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  7. Thanks for the shoutout Tracy. I can agree that as a crime story these are not the very best, but I love everything else about them. Blanche is a most memorable character.

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    1. I agree, Moira, Blanche is a great character, although I had to get used to her. Amateur sleuths are not my favorite type of mystery, but as you say, the rest of the book is so good that it doesn't matter.

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