Before “The Help” there was Blanche White, an African American housekeeper with a knack for getting tangled up in murder mysteries.
Yet as fascinating as the character Blanche White is, the story of Barbara Neely, the author behind the books, is even more so. She’s worked as an activist and radio talk-show host and producer, designed a women’s corrections system and written a play she hopes to expand and have produced. Plus she’s earned two master’s degrees — the first in urban planning and the second in creative writing.
Neely’s the kind of person who explains, when talking about her career taking yet another turn, “I wanted to find out how to do what I didn’t know how to do.”
Her ground-breaking mystery series premiered in 1992 with “Blanche on the Lam.” It won three of the four major mystery awards that year for best first novel: The Agatha, the Anthony and the Macavity. Three more books followed, but all are now out of print.
Until Brash Books, founded by bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, with the goal of publishing “the best crime novels in existence,” reissued Neely’s first novel as an e-book last year. The second book in the series will be released in February.
“Neely blazed a trail for other women and minority crime novelists,” Goldman said. “She gives a voice to a character who was previously invisible.”
The name Blanche, of course, is French for white, so this dark-skinned African American woman bears the burden of a name that’s essentially White White. Neely said she was intrigued by the juxtaposition. “It’s hilarious, but not necessarily in a positive way,” she told me.
The name serves another purpose: Neely wanted to concentrate on the issues of race, gender and class in her fiction, and Blanche epitomizes all three.
“As an old organizer, you tell people what you want them to know, tell them again, and then tell them what you’ve told them,” Neely explained.
The threads of racism are woven throughout the story of “Blanche on the Lam.” There’s Blanche describing how the woman of the house makes sure to take her handbag when she leaves the room the maid is cleaning. There’s no looking your white employer in the eye, an act that once could have ended an African American’s life. There’s what Blanche calls “Darkies disease,” when you mistakenly believe your white employers actually care for you.
“What she didn’t understand was how you convinced yourself that you were actually loved by people who paid you the lowest possible wages,” Blanche wonders.
The books are set in the fictional town of Farley, N.C. Neely said she’d lived in Durham and loved it, lived in Raleigh and hated it. Blanche isn’t overly fond of Farley, either.
Neely’s second book, “Blanche and the Talented Tenth,” first published in 1994, tackles the issue of colorism and takes place at a high-class resort catering to light-skinned blacks. It was inspired by a dark-haired white woman Neely met at a book-signing who described how blue-eyed blondes are treated better than brunettes.
Her third book four years later, “Blanche Cleans Up,” is the only one set in Boston and looks at the theme of environmental justice along with gangs and “how we treat our youth.” The last book in the series, “Blanche Passes Go,” published in 2000, deals with violence against women; part of the proceeds during the book tour went to women’s shelters.
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.”
The books’ fans cross both racial and gender lines, though. Neely recalls talking to a truck driver at a bookstore signing in California. A 75-year-old man told her “Blanche on the Lam” was the first book he’d ever read after taking an adult literacy class. More recently, a group of students translated “Blanche on the Lam” into Czech and then invited Neely to speak in Prague.
In some ways, her road to publication sounds like an author’s dream. She was contacted by an agent after one of her short stories appeared in a magazine and asked whether she had a longer work. She’d turned to writing about Blanche while stuck on “a more serious” novel. (Neely mentioned she could have trademarked procrastination while struggling with that book.)
St. Martin’s Press, the first publisher who read the manuscript, bought it. Blanche appeared two years after Walter Mosley‘s successful first book featuring his African American detective Easy Rawlins.
But Neely had a varied career before and after Blanche, including designer and director of Pennsylvania’s first community-based correctional facility for women.
Before the interview with Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, Neely heard someone else already had the position; she was “just a box to check off for affirmative action.”
“I went into the interview with nothing to lose,” Neely said. So after she’d been told about the plan for a corrections facility for women, she said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. What you really need to do — and then I gave him the outline of what was essentially my master’s thesis.”
She got the job and designed a system that gave women “the opportunity to be in the community, to get an education and not have to go back to where they came from.”
My favorite story Neely shared had to do with hotel chambermaids in Boston. In 1987, management at the Copley Plaza Hotel decided the maids needed to abandon their mops and instead, scrub the bathroom floors with rags — on their hands and knees.
Neely, working as an activist at the time, along with the union representing the maids, went to the hotel with a Christmas present containing cleaning rags for the manager, who was out of town.
But Boston’s mayor had planned to hold his inaugural ball at the hotel. And the mayor’s mother had been a domestic worker, Neely said. He moved his ball to another venue.
The hotel backed down, and the maids — all of whom were women and most of whom were minorities — did not have to get down on their knees to clean the bathrooms any longer.
It was after the Blanche books that Neely earned a master’s in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts. She hosted “Commonwealth Journal,” a program on WUMB. She took a playwriting class at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and caught the interest of a couple of directors with a short play she’d like to turn into a one-act.
When working on the play, Neely wanted to find out “how theater worked from the inside,” so she volunteered as an assistant stage manager. “It was the most amazing experience,” she said. “I loved being backstage.”
Neely, who lives in Pennsylvania, is still writing. “I never stopped writing,” she said. “I just stopped trying to get published.”