Neely, Barbara 1941-
NEELY, Barbara 1941-
PERSONAL: Born in 1941, in Lebanon, PA; daughter of Bernard and Ann Neely. Ethnicity: African American. Education: University of Pittsburgh, M.A.
ADDRESSES: Home—Jamaica Plain, MA. Agent—c/o author correspondence, Viking Press, 40 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Mystery novelist and short story writer. Former designer and director of community-based corrections facility for women; former branch director, YWCA; former head of consulting firm for nonprofit organizations. Visiting researcher, Institute for Social Research. Executive director, Women for Economic Justice. Radio producer, Africa News Service, and host of radio interview program, Commonwealth Justice, Massachusetts.
AWARDS, HONORS: Agatha Award, Anthony Award, Macavity Award, and Go On, Girl! Award from Black Women's Reading Club, all for best first mystery novel, all 1993, all for Blanche on the Lam.
Blanche on the Lam, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Blanche among the Talented Tenth, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Blanche Cleans Up, Viking (New York, NY), 1998.
Blanche Passes Go, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.
Also author of short stories in various anthologies and periodicals, including Things That Divide Us, Speaking for Ourselves, Constellations, Literature: Reading and Writing the Human Experience, Breaking Ice, Essence, and Obsidian II.
SIDELIGHTS: With her first novel, the 1992 mystery Blanche on the Lam, Barbara Neely infused new vigor into the whodunit genre. As Charles Champlin put it in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Neely "entertainingly corrected" the absence of female African-American writers and characters in that genre. Her series sleuth, Blanche White, is a middle-aged domestic worker with a sharp tongue and a sharper mind, an independent working woman who must juggle her job, her child-rearing duties, and her penchant for solving crimes. "Neely took a giant step into unknown territory for a crime novel and succeeded brilliantly," observed a contributor to the St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers. The contributor added, "Although racism is not new to fiction, the viewpoint of a domestic worker is. Although Blanche is not the first African-American protagonist—not even the first black woman detective—she is the first of her type. And she is a formidable character." Library Journal reviewer Alice Di Nizo called Blanche "one of the best fictional 'detectives' conjured up in years."
Readers are introduced to Blanche in Neely's award-winning Blanche on the Lam. As the novel opens, Neely's heroine is a domestic working in North Carolina. Her name means "White White," but her personality is anything but that: Blanche is feisty, independent, strong-willed, and proudly scornful of her white employers. Blanche is jailed for writing $42.50 in bad checks, a misfortune she fell into because four of her employers left town without paying her. She manages to escape and ends up working for the Carters, a "Faulknerian cast of oddballs," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor.
Blanche discovers that the Carters may be involved in some arcane plots against one another in quest of an inheritance. Aunt Emmeline, the rich recluse whose inheritance is sought, may be an alcoholic; Cousin Mumsfield, a mildly retarded young man, may be more clever than he seems; and Miz Grace and Everett, Blanche's employers, are affluent neurotics. This family constitutes, Champlin suggests, a "Eugene O'Neill plot seen from the pantry door." Blanche, given the society in which she must operate, can only observe them rather than openly investigate, a limitation which, in Champlin's admiring view, Neely overcomes with "special ingenuity."
After the local sheriff is murdered, Blanche stirs things up enough for suspicion to be thrown not only upon her, but also upon an innocent African American gardener. Forced to solve the crime in order to avoid being accused of it, Blanche successfully takes charge in what a Publishers Weekly critic called a "deftly written debut." The Publishers Weekly critic appreciated Blanche on the Lam, too, for paying "heartfelt tribute to the community and culture of a working-class African American woman." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews approved of the "prickly view of class-clashes, race relations, and family foibles" but described the author's "folk-talk" style as somewhat "forced" in this "quirky" novel. For Champlin, a major attraction of the book was Blanche's hard-nosed social commentary. Champlin was not alone in looking forward to Neely's follow-up novel, and Blanche on the Lam received three major awards as best first mystery novel of 1993.
The hoped-for sequel, and presumably the second in a projected longer series, was Blanche among the Talented Tenth. The scene has shifted from North Carolina to Boston, without a reduction in the racism of the surrounding community, but with an added spotlight on a different form of class snobbery, that of light-skinned middle-class blacks toward their darkerskinned, less affluent brothers and sisters. Blanche, a working-class, dark-skinned woman whose obvious talents make the phrase "talented tenth" sound ironic, pays a summer visit to a niece and nephew on Amber Cove, a Maine resort frequented by middle-class African Americans. Having ensconced herself in the local community against the grain of some of its members, Blanche learns that the local gossip, Faith Brown, has been electrocuted in her bathtub, and that an MIT professor named Hank has apparently drowned himself in the ocean, after leaving a note confessing to Faith's murder. That seems cut-and-dried, but Blanche suspects that something more is involved, and as she probes into local history and current relationships, she finds ample material for suspense and scandal.
Some reviewers found this novel less gripping than the first. A Kirkus Reviews correspondent felt that the whodunit element was less effective than Neely's "acerbic portrait of class infighting at its most corrosive." A Publishers Weekly critic wrote, "Blanche continues to appeal in her so-what-if-I've-got-an-attitude way, but while . . . Blanche on the Lam was a mystery with a bit of message, this one is a message with a bit of mystery." Blanche herself, however, and the varied environments into which she might conceivably be set, remained so captivating that thousands of readers eagerly anticipated a third installment.
Blanche Cleans Up finds the feisty detective serving as a temporary cook for the Allister Brindle family in Boston. Allister Brindle is running for governor of Massachusetts, but Blanche soon discovers a plethora of dirty secrets leading to a string of murders that ultimately threaten her and her teenaged children in their Roxbury neighborhood. Once again Blanche must step in to solve the crimes as a matter of self-preservation—but she proves adept at piercing the veneer of civility in her employers' home. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that in this installment Blanche proves to be "direct, endlessly entertaining and nobody's fool." The reviewer added that Blanche's "streetwise attitude and lusty approach to life . . . add sparks to an already sizzling mystery." Di Nizo also styled Neely "a skilled and pleasing writer . . . whose plot lines flow pleasantly."
Many novel plots revolve around characters coming to terms with their pasts, and Blanche Passes Go is in line with this tradition. Returning to North Carolina from Boston to help in a friend's catering business, Blanche must face the wealthy white man, David Palmer, who raped her with impunity years before. After a young woman is murdered, Blanche finds herself investigating Palmer's sister—and by default, Palmer as well—in an effort to solve a number of unsolved violent crimes against women. "Blanche's quest, both for vengeance and to reclaim her life, drives a compelling plot," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Rex Klett in Library Journal praised Blanche Passes Go for its "unique, ancestor-worshiping protagonist" and "wonderful plotting." In Black Issues Book Review, Sharita Hunt characterized the novel as "an emotionally charged, multilayered exploration of violence and abuse" that also sheds light on fostering relationships with those we love—parents, friends, children, and lovers.
"Barbara Neely's talent makes music of what linguistic scholars have called 'neighborhood language,'" observed the St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers essayist. "This is not the street slang made familiar by novels based on police procedure and the cop shows. It's a language white people seldom hear unless you go hunting for it—the language African Americans speak at home where no whites sit in judgment—and the changes Neely rings give it an added dimension of color and vividness."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Heising, Willetta L., Detecting Women 2, Purple Moon Press (Dearborn, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Black Issues Book Review, November, 2000, Sharita Hunt, review of Blanche Passes Go, p. 22.
Booklist, March 15, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Blanche Cleans Up, p. 1206; April 15, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Blanche Cleans Up, p. 1461.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1991, pp. 1560-1561; July 1, 1994, p. 889.
Library Journal, March 15, 1998, Alice DiNizo, review of Blanche Cleans Up, p. 95; June 15, 1999, Suzan Connell, review of Blanche Cleans Up, p. 132; July, 2000, Rex Klett, review of Blanche Passes Go, p. 145.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 8, 1992, p. 8, Charles Champlin, review of Blanche on the Lam.
Publishers Weekly, January 20, 1992, p. 50; July 18, 1994, p. 238; March 30, 1998, review of Blanche Cleans Up, p. 73; May 29, 2000, review of Blanche Passes Go, p. 55.
Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color,http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/NEELYbarbara.html/ (March 20, 2003).*