Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely


Blanche White, #1

Barbara Neely’s Smart, Sassy and Groundbreaking Crime Novel Blanche White is a plump, feisty, middle-aged African-American housekeeper working for the genteel rich in North Carolina. But when an employer stiffs her, and her checks bounce, she goes on the lam, hiding out as a maid for a wealthy family at their summer home. That plan goes awry when there’s a murder and Blanche becomes the prime suspect. So she’s forced to use her savvy, her sharp wit, and her old-girl network of domestic workers to discover the truth and save her own skin. Along the way, she lays bare the quirks of southern society with humor, irony, and a biting commentary that makes her one of the most memorable and original characters ever to appear in mystery fiction.

"The story might sound like common gossip when told by another person, but in the mouth of a storyteller, gossip was art."

This was recommended to me in a thread on a forum about diverse voices in cozy mystery novels. I like digging through the book pile to uncover unusual amateur sleuths. The traditional, overdone stereotypes are still fun to read, but I enjoy those who have unusual careers for a change in rhythm. I was primarily drawn to this one because of her role as a maid and caretaker of the house. I enjoy the head cooks of private politically-inclined houses as well. Who would think I'd be so drawn to private cooks and housekeepers in these novels while I hate cooking and cleaning in real life myself?

I'm weird that way. Moving on...

Blanche IS certainly different. She's also a delight. Her humorous inner voice takes liberties to deliver messages to the reader almost too often. I dug her sarcasm, her issues with authority. Blanche is of course different from me since most of her pain and objection comes from racial issues I don't have to face and can not fully understand. Much of this was eye-opening and an educational experience to absorb.

That said, sometimes I think she's too unreasonable to assign unfairness to her from past employers. As an example, she speaks of being fired by a previous employer because she believes the employer was snotty, snobby, perhaps racist, and unfair. What she did was get caught using the employer's bathtub, bath salts, bath pillow, and cleaning brush/sponge. Assigning villainry for that is not something I agree with at all - bath salts, who cares, but in my house we're careful to keep all bathing sponges separate and bath pillows are meant to collect the skin cells, conditioned hair resting on it, soaped bodies...yech. I wouldn't share this with friends, family, let alone employees either - I don't think being disgusted by someone using my bathing sponge is at all unreasonable. *shudders*

The mystery is a clever enough one, although the suspect pool is small because most of the book takes part in a single household in the country. The story takes awhile to take off, but I didn't care. Some may get impatient, but I loved the opening where she makes a bold decision that's daring and again "different" - slipping from the law, not a spoiler in itself since it's in the title of the book and the synopsis - and getting caught up in this oddball family situation. I enjoyed her preparation of meals, evenings spent listening to the radio, and her bond with Mumsfield - that was especially endearing, as were her few meetings with the gardener Nate.

In short, I didn't mind the mystery taking awhile to take off because even the smaller things were interesting to me. Characterization is rich in this one and has a natural feel that takes you places without having to move there quickly. The ending showdown is more than a typical fight and lucky save - it's a fulfillment of taking control of a situation, of having hope, of leaving strong when you started frightened considering the opening chapter.

I'll definitely read more of this series, more of Blanche's misadventures and funny voice, more of her unique perspective I'm not familiar with, and of course more cooking - more cleaning - and more amateur mystery solving.

Book Quotes

“Blanche stared at Emmeline’s door for a few moments, bristling with the desire to knock and trying to conquer her natural inclination to defy the voice of authority. It was one of the reasons she had not lasted in the waitressing, telephone sales, clerking, and typing jobs she’d tried over the years.”


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