I am eternally searching for murder mysteries that scratch a very specific itch. I have extremely high standards and a very particular set of criteria for my ideal mystery novel, which are:
- The mystery must be a satisfying puzzle; there can be none of that nonsense where the author springs a crucial piece of information on you at the last moment.
- The detective must be a complex, interesting character, with the capacity to grow and change. The supporting characters need to be equally interesting, even if they are only featured in one book.
- The book has to explore real issues—it can’t be too cozy. But then again, it can’t be so bleak that I’m crying into my pillow every night and lamenting the hopelessness of the world (I get enough of that from reading the news).
- Wit is essential; if I don’t find myself smiling from time to time, forget it. Bonus points if there are multiple characters who have great senses of humour.
- Thoughts have to be provoked. I’m not interested in a mystery novel that doesn’t give me something to think about.
- I need a good subplot that weaves in and out of the central mystery, something that adds depth and context and fills out the fictional world.
- The writing itself must be interesting. I’m here for the language as much as the plot.
Like I said, I have high (some may say unreasonable) standards. Up until now, no one has met all of these requirements since the golden days of Dorothy L. Sayers.
Friends, Barbara Neely ticks all of those boxes.
Blanche on the Lam tells the story of Blanche White, a Black domestic worker in the southern US. The book was published in 1992, and while the year of the story is not explicitly stated, context clues (such as references to “dotcom money” and cassette tapes) indicate that the book is set around the same time.
When Blanche finds herself taken advantage of by defaulting employers, she bolts from a “bad-check charge” and a subsequent 30-day prison sentence. In a quick-thinking move, she takes up a job with a wealthy white family who are travelling to the countryside for a week. Ensconcing herself as their cook and housekeeper for a week will keep her out of the city (the fictional Farleigh, North Carolina) and the line of sight of the sheriff.
Of course, things are not what they seem with the Carter family. Blanche is soon tangled up with a mysterious visit from a lawyer; an elderly aunt hidden away in the upper levels; a vague and unhappy woman and her blandly sinister, philandering husband; an observant cousin who is chronically underestimated; and a beholden and subdued fellow worker with secrets. Soon, the body count starts to climb, and Blanche needs to piece together the clues. She is acutely aware that she is the most convenient scapegoat around.
This is a novel that is primarily interested in marginalized people. In that way, it breaks from a lot of murder mystery tradition—delightfully so. Golden Age detective fiction is relentless in its whiteness and its problematic stereotyping of any character who is not white, cishet, abled, and upper or upper-middle class. With a very few exceptions, the scope of the Golden Age writers was very narrow and very privileged.
Barbara Neely, on the other hand, wrote from the perspective of a Black woman and activist who, among other things, taught prison inmates, fought for working mothers and abused women, and advocated for abortion rights. Blanche on the Lam is a story about class and race as much as it is a straight-up whodunit.
For many years, Blanche worried that it was fear which sometimes made her reluctant to meet white people’s eyes, particularly on days when she had the loneliest or unspecified blues. She’d come to understand that her desire was to avoid pain, a pain so old, so deep, its memory was carried not in her mind, but in her bones. Some days she simply didn’t want to look into the eyes of people likely raised to hate, disdain, or fear anyone who looked like her.”—Blanche on the Lam
I was curious to see how this book was going to handle the “law and order” aspect that murder mysteries inevitably need in order to see the culprit caught. I have been pondering how the traditional whodunit is intrinsically rooted in white privilege and supremacy because it always relies on a racist system to bring justice in the end. My beloved Golden Age detectives, even when not explicitly working for Scotland Yard, are always tied to it. And even when characters are marginalized or wrongfully accused, the resolution always lands back in the hands of a few benevolent members of the same force that put them in danger.
In addition to her tenuous position in southern American society as a Black woman, Blanche is, as the title says, on the lam. She spends the entire book hiding from the police. Nothing is shied away from in this book, which talks of corruption, abuse, lynchings, sexual assault, and more. I wondered how Barbara Neely was going to wrap this murder mystery up, since the law is established from the beginning to be corrupt and unfair. I won’t give anything of the book away, but I will say that Barbara Neely did a spectacular job of handling this in a way that was both satisfying and true to the story and the characters.
I loved Blanche; she is a fantastic character for lots of reasons. She’s thoughtful and sharp, and she has a wicked sense of humour. We get scenes and moments in which we see Blanche question things and weigh what she knows with what she intuitively feels. We get to see the thought processes that lead to her suspicions and her conclusions, and we also get to see her fears, and the skills she has taught herself over time to stay strong and survive. By the last page, we really know Blanche as a person—and she is undoubtedly a person we want to know.
Another lovely aspect of this book is the inclusion of a fully developed, well-rounded character with a disability. Mumsfield is a man in his thirties who has Mosaic Down syndrome. This is a rare type of Down syndrome (making up 2% of people with Down syndrome) and occurs when some cells have three copies of chromosome 21 while some cells have two. From their first meeting, Blanche and Mumsfield hit it off, and their friendship is a highlight of the story.
There are also some beautiful, some harrowing, some tender descriptions in this book. The language is precise and evocative, and I enjoyed every word of it.
The stars were bright and silver-blue. The moon was a child’s drawing, lopsided, bright, and full of magic. Blanche stretched out her arms and let her head fall back. She could feel muscles pulling in her forearms and tightening at the back of her neck. She relaxed against the step and stared out into the deeper dark that hung above the garden and in the pinewoods beyond.”—Blanche on the Lam
I am so, so, so excited to read the next three books in the Blanche White series: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, Blanche Cleans Up, and Blanche Passes Go. Barbara Neely passed away in 2020, so these are all the Blanche books that we will get. But I am just so pleased that they are out there in the world, and that I have discovered them. If you are a fan of the murder mystery genre, I can’t recommend this book enough.