IN THIS POST: The Blanche White series written by Barbara Neely is a mystery series with a couple different angles. A feisty protagonist tackles much more than just a few dead bodies.
About a year ago I read two memoirs back-to-back in an uncommon occurrence. They prompted reflection on the memoir genre and what makes one “good.” Now I find myself in a less-familiar-to-me genre making another observation. I’m not sure what’s in the air at this time of year, but it’s good for at least one blog post and reflective reading.
My History with Mystery
I had a few childhood favorite mystery series. Nancy Drew and The Happy Hollisters were my happy introduction into solving minor crimes and mysteries.
And then came the adult version. With body bags.
I recall finishing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None when I was in my early teens. I was at the beach with my family (unfamiliar location) and made the mistake of finishing it at night (everyone else is asleep and it’s dark). If that sounds like a bad idea, then you are correct. It really is.
Since then, I’ve picked up mysteries/detective novels off and on. Raymond Chandler, John Le Carré, Walter Mosley, and my recent favorite is the Vish Puri detective series. My curiosity ebbs and flows. It seems like a winter season kind of thing.
All that to say, I enjoy a good detective novel or series, but I am far from being an expert in the genre. Around December I searched for some new-to-me detectives and arrived at the Blanche White series by Barbara Neely. And I’m so glad that I did.
Here’s Blanche’s description from the back of the first book, Blanche on the Lam:
“Blanche White is a plump, feisty, middle-aged African-American housekeeper working for the genteel rich in North Carolina.”
Blanche’s location changes between books but the feisty and African-American aspects of her identity ring loud and clear consistently. I’ve read two of the books in this series, and I’m looking forward to the last two.
But this series is a touch different. I think there are two particular ways that the Blanche White series stands apart from the traditional detective literature: one, for one reason or another she operates as an outsider sleuth and two, she doesn’t set out to be a detective (at least not in the first two books).
These two distinctions create a different dynamic in the series.
Blanche White Series: Outsider Sleuth
Blanche on the Lam
In the first two books Blanche is an outsider to the community in which she is working. Both her job and her skin color factor heavily in both stories.
In the first book she is working for a wealthy white family in North Carolina. To them, she is hired help. They expect her to blend and serve without disrupting their status quo. But Blanche has observed and experienced enough in her line of work to recognize when something is not quite right.
As the hired housekeeper Blanche observes that there are certain expectations for role she will play regarding interactions with other members of the family – even as she uses those expectations to glean more information. As an African-American woman she brings a specific perspective to white culture that allows her to notice both continuity and nuance.
By the end, the family she is working for realizes too late that she has figured everything out. And, the person who has incited the violence and manipulation (apparently not for the first time), recognizes Blanche White as the formidable opponent to the grand plan.
Blanche Among the Talented Tenth
In the second book, Blanche White finds herself among a black population in the north representing “the talented tenth” of black leadership. These wealthy, light-skinned African-Americans are a tight-knit group with priorities and dynamics specific to their upbringing and experience.
Again, Blanche finds herself on the outside. Her dark skin and her profession will be seen by some as undesirable. It’s not an ideal situation as she also tries to navigate the expressions of colorism in her young niece at the same time.
Nevertheless, she overhears a conversation, meets an enigmatic older woman, falls for a handsome local, and gets wrapped up in the deaths of two people in the community. Her outsider perspective enables her to see hypocrisy and inconsistent practices in a distinguished institution. It also gives her fresh eyes with which to see seasoned regulars in the community – prompting provocative questions and refusing to see only prescribed motives as possibilities.
Blanche White Series: Unintentional Detective
In neither book does Blanche seek out the role of detective. She is not asked to intervene and so Neely must create circumstances that put her on the scene. The scenario for the first book is particularly extraordinary and adds a different layer of tension to the story.
Whereas most detective series, at least that I’ve read, rely on someone embracing the label as their profession or having a sort of background experience commensurate with a detective, Blanche White is decidedly not a detective.
In the second book we see her working more openly with another character to uncover the details of recent deaths, but that other character is suspicious in her own right and Blanche is not directly answerable to her.
Sleuthing without experience or traditional resources to aid an investigation creates different avenues of inquiry and the need for unorthodox approaches. Blanche is up to the task. She relies on friends, family, experience, and occasional breaking-and-entering to get answers. She’s unconventional.
Blanche White is a tribute to good listening, good deduction, and good problem-solving.
And also, one could argue, good sass.
What to Expect with the Blanche White Series
The tension in these books ebbs and flows. The crimes are not the primary focus. Fortunately, Barbara Neely creates a solid set of circumstances and tensions revolving around bigger issues such as racism and colorism, so that readers have multiple strands of story to pull them along.
Also, the character of Blanche White has personal character-lines that evolve in each book. In many ways these books were character-driven more than most mysteries. I tend to think of detective fiction as plot-driven with a detective character as the guide.
Readers should also expect to grapple with racism, sexism, colorism, and probably more -isms in these books. Blanche doesn’t mince words when she’s speaking to another character or in her internal dialogue that readers are privy too. There is a lot to recognize and unpack with her running commentary.
Finally, readers can expect a slim book. This isn’t always a given for mysteries, but the two books that I read were in the 200-page ball-park. Good for a weekend read or a good size to throw in a bag and take to an appointment or trip.
What next? After I get through the last two books in the Blanche White series, where should I look next? Got any favorite detective stories to recommend? Leave a note in the comments – I’d love to hear from you 🙂