As Constant Reader is aware, on 2019 I embarked on something I called The Diversity Project for myself; an effort to read books by authors who were not straight or white or cisgender. I had hoped to use 2019, and this project, as not only a way to broaden my reading and make up for years of lost time, but also to broaden my mind, my knowledge, and my experience.
It does not escape me that it’s kind of shitty that I actually had to make an effort, make in into an actual project, to ensure that I read outside of my own privileged experience. I don’t deserve a cookie or praise for doing something I should have been doing my entire life. It’s horribly shitty that my entire reading life could best be described as a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder bread. I’ve also been trying to remember something, anything, other than Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird that I read as a child that had people of color as characters (and frankly, those two problematic books don’t count). Bayport and River Heights and Rocky Beach and Sleepyside and all the other towns and villages in the teenaged sleuth series for kids I read were all lily-white.
Several years ago, Brash Books brought the entire Blanche White series by Barbara Neely, all four of them, back into print. I had never read Ms. Neely’s books; I’d never, to be completely honest, even heard of them. But the concept sounded fantastic, and unlike anything I’d ever read before, so I went ahead and ordered Blanche on the Lam, the first book in the series, which proceeded to languish and collect dust in my (massive) TBR pile. Mystery Writers of America recently selected Ms. Neely as a Grand Master, and as I was heading up to New York for the board retreat/orientation for 2020, I thought to myself, self, take Ms. Neely’s book with you on the trip to read–it’s serendipity and meant to be, and also far past time.
And that’s exactly what I did.
“Have you anything to say for yourself?” The judge gave Blanche a look that made her raise her handbag to her chest like a shield.
“Your Honor…I’m sorry…I…”
“Sorry? It most certainly is sorry! This is the fourth, I repeat, the fourth time you’ve been before this court on a bad-check charge. Perhaps some time in a jail cell will convince you to earn your money before you spend it, like the rest of us! Thirty days and restitution!”
“But, Your Honor…” Blanche’s legs were suddenly weak. Her hands were freezing. Beads of sweat popped out on her nose. She wanted to tell the judge that a jail cell was cruel and unusual punishment for a person who panicked in slow elevators. She also wanted to ask him where the hell he got off, lying about her like that! This was her second, not her fourth, charge. Furthermore, just as she’d done the last time, she would have made good on the checks even if she hadn’t been summoned to court. Hadn’t she already covered three of the five checks she’s written? And right here in her handbag she had the forty-two-fifty she still owed, plus fifty dollars for the fine–same as the judge had made her pay last time. But last time she’d had a judge with his mind already on the gold course. He’d hardly bothered to look at her. There’d been no talk of jail that time.
From the opening sentence, Neely is being completely subversive to her readers–not only is she writing about a woman of color, front and center, that woman is also working class and struggling to make ends meet. She is dealing with–in even a small way–with the criminal justice system that is tilted against her–poor, working class, of color–and sure enough, she gets screwed. And while some might argue she shouldn’t have bounced checks (it’s not really clear whether she deliberately wrote bad checks, or if she wrote them thinking she was going to get paid, and then didn’t), I think everyone can agree that thirty days in jail–and a judge sentencing her based on a false premise that she was a more habitual offender–is excessive.
Blanche’s voice is one that is rarely, if ever, heard in crime fiction, either before or after this series, and that’s a shame. The book itself is thoroughly enjoyable, as Blanche manages to take advantage of a distraction at the courthouse and walk out, unimpeded…thus going “on the lam”, and not knowing what to do or where to go, remembers that she was supposed to take a temp gig as a housekeeper, and goes to that address. She winds up going out of town to work at a wealthy family’s vacation home, and it soon becomes very apparent that there is something really wrong with the family.
It’s also next to impossible not to root for Blanche, to want her to do well, and somehow get herself out of the predicament she’s found herself in. After all–there is a murder, she’s a fugitive from “justice,” and of course she’s a woman of color in a corrupt, racist place–it would be incredibly easy for law enforcement to simply pin the murder on her and wash their hands of the entire mess. It’s an absolute joy to see Blanche–with her own heart and compassion, not give in to impulses she shouldn’t, and to think her way out of everything, and not only exceed the reader’s expectations but subvert them completely.
Read this book. Read the entire series. There’s seriously no question that Barbara Neely is a grand master. None whatsoever. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.