Born 1941, Lebanon, Pennsylvania
Barbara Neely is the author of several short stories and a series of mysteries novels featuring the first amateur African-American female domestic sleuth, Blanche White. Neely says her work deals with race and class, and it runs as a common thread throughout her writing.
Neely came from a working-class family in a steel town near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her early years in the 1960s found her attending business school in Jamestown, New York, creating a community-based housing program for female felons in Pittsburgh, and later in the 1970s and 1980s working with homeless women, teenage mothers, women on welfare, and working single mothers. During these years she wrote short stories, and her first, "Passing the Word," was published in Essence magazine. As the years passed, she worked as a consultant to nonprofit organizations on issues of multiculturalism, project development, program evaluation, and community-based research. She was also the cochair on the Board of Women for Economic Justice. She continued to write short stories part-time, and many of them appear in numerous anthologies such as Test Tube Women (1984), Things That Divide Us (1985), Angels of Power (1986), and Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction (1990). Other works appear in collections such as Speaking for Ourselves, Constellations, Street Talk, and World of Fiction.
Neely's first novel, Blanche on the Lam (1992), won her the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards for best first mystery novel and the best debut novel by the Go-On-Girls. In an article on tools for the part-time novelist in the journal Writer, Neely said the book was produced while she was working "60 hours a week at a job to which I was dedicated." Despite this arduous schedule, the first Blanche book was heralded for its tribute to the community and the culture of the working-class African-American woman. It also identified Neely's writing skill as one to be reckoned with.
This first Blanche novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina where Blanche finds herself sentenced to 30 days in jail for writing a bad check. Out of necessity, she gives the law the slip by becoming a domestic in the home of a wealthy family with deadly secrets. In order to escape being blamed for the death of a racist sheriff who was pursuing her, she begins to investigate the crime and identify suspects. As the plot progresses, she becomes convinced she must fight for her own life to survive. In this work, Blanche is funny and biting in her observation of white people, intelligent and resourceful in her sleuthing, and a marginal outsider by circumstance and therefore easily overlooked at important moments. She was raised to be nobody's fool.
The next Blanche adventure, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994), finds her involved in a series of murders in the African-American community. It deals with the color-based class differences of a posh Maine resort filled with wealthy light-skinned blacks that represent a different kind of bigotry to Blanche. In this book Blanche is living in Boston and travels to the exclusive resort to make sure her niece and nephew, who are spending the summer there, are not getting wrong ideas from these undesirable inhabitants. While there, she not only experiences color and class distinctions, but also becomes involved in investigating the deaths of the local gossip and a man who claims to have killed her. The strength of the Blanche character and the message the book delivered continued to produce positive comments for Neely.
Blanche Cleans Up (1998) finds Blanche substituting for the cook in the home of an ambitious politician who aspires to be the governor of Massachusetts. Blanche doesn't like the way this man appears to support civil rights, but behind closed doors shows disrespect for everyone who isn't white and rich. When she discovers a connection between deaths in the household and those in her own community, she begins an investigation of murders that turn out to be tied to scandal, sex, and heartbreak. Critics have applauded Neely's character development and the flowing plotlines in this novel.
Neely uses Blanche to present issues of race and class as they exist in our society. Despite Blanche's seemingly unsophisticated appearance and profession, there is a probing mind, with a sharp wit and an opinionated voice that carries Neely's message loud and clear. Neely's mysteries are not mysteries; but rather social statements made to her readers in a sometimes entertaining and witty way, sometimes a sharp and biting manner, but always with an honest view.
Booklist (15 Mar. 1998). LJ (15 Mar. 1998). Writer (June 1993). PW (20 Jan. 1992, 18 July 1994). Essence (Apr. 1992). WRB (Jan. 1995).
Barbara Neely at www.smpcollege.com/experience_literature/fiction/neely.htm and Cogdill, O. H., "A Biography of Barbara Neely," from the Sun-Sentinel South Florida at www.sun-sentinel.com/freetime/mysteries/neely.htm.
—PAULA C. MURPHY