Life and Work
Barbara Neely, a novelist, short story writer and activist, was born in 1941 in Lebanon Pennsylvania. In this heavily German influenced community, she was the only child of African American descent to attend her elementary and high school. When furthering her education, Neely attended the University of Pittsburgh where she earned her master’s degree in Urban and Regional planning.
With this degree she began an extensive public sector career that sent her in many directions. She founded and ran “Sally Side,” a home and resource center for women in the Pittsburgh area who had been in prison. Later, Neely became the director of Women for Economic Justice, which was geared toward minority women in economic difficulty. Neely continued her activist-focused career working in the Philadelphia Tutorial Project where she helped young African Americans deal with gang and housing problems in the inner city of Philadelphia. Neely also became the director of a YWCA and headed a consultant firm for non-profits. In addition, she became a radio producer for Africa News Service, and later, a staff member at Southern Exposure Magazine.
Fortunately for her readers, Neely eventually turned to writing full-time and is most acclaimed for her Blanche mystery series. Her work reinforces her beliefs about race and class in America. As Ann Collette explains, “the keep-it real ethic of Neely’s writing is a natural outgrowth of the author’s down-to-earth nature and her fierce commitment to political activism, her profession before she turned to writing full-time” (1).
Barbara Neely is best known for her Blanche White mystery series; however, when she published her first novel Blanche on the Lam, in 1992, she had low expectations for it. She had been successful in the short story genre and “created Blanche while suffering from writers block with another project” (Collette). And no one was more surprised than Neely when her book became the first of four in her top selling mystery series; in fact her novels are so successful they have been translated into French, German, and Japanese. Neely’s success can be contributed to her ability to relate to the African American community while also tackling political issues through her spunky character Blanche White, a domestic worker. “…I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects,” she explains, “and it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write” (Collette).
Neely’s first novel, Blanche on the Lam, is a prime example of her tactics. The novel tells of Blanche getting caught up in some trouble while on vacation. Neely, in this novel, incorporates Blanche’s extended family, from her “retarded” cousin to her wealthy aunt, whom she takes care of. This is a situation that many African American readers can relate to because of the great importance of extended family in African American communities. She also tackles some dirty politics in law enforcement when writing about the sheriff who may be blackmailing one of her family members.
Another novel, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, also tackles subjects that affect the African American community. In this book Neely addresses the issue of racism among Blacks; the hostility between lighter skinned and darker skinned African Americans. At Amber Cove, an exclusive resort that caters to lighter-skinned Blacks, Blanche is faced with these truths while becoming involved in a murder mystery. This taboo subject is handled in a head on fashion by straight talking Blanche. When realizing the resort was exclusive to lighter-skinned Blacks, Blanche states “I guess there won’t be a lot of guests sitttin’ around talkin’ about how beautiful black is” (5). Blanche’s straightforwardness is a central feature of each novel in the series.
In Blanche Cleans Up, Blanche’s domestic work has her working in a politician’s house where she becomes involved in scandals, sex, and heartbreak. And in addition to all of this, she challenges dirty politicians that act as though they want to help her neighborhood. The novel also takes on class difference when showing the juxtaposition of the world she works in and the world she lives in. The house Blanche works in is “an old-fashioned brick house, with shutters and trim in richest green. It rose up from the ground like a grand diva reaching her full height” (1). About her own home, in contrast, “Blanche was still put off by the large, square, concrete court that doubled as parking lot and playground ringed by a narrow sidewalk. She was bothered by the circled-wagons feel of the place, the way the houses all turned in on the square as though snubbing the rest of the community” (32). By contrasting the world Blanche works in and the world she lives in, Neely exposes class differences that otherwise might be overlooked.
The Blanche White character and her charming personality, along with Neely’s messages, are at the center of the novels’ plot lines. According to Rosemary Hathaway, Neely creates Blanche’s character to not only take on the issues raised, but to also be the issues. Neely gives Blanche a “double-consciousness” (320) and when thrown into tough situations, “Blanche’s detective work enacts more of a triple- or even a quadruple-consciousness. Her tricksterism and insight draw not only on her awareness of her blackness but equally on her awareness of being working-class in the homes of her wealthy employers (whether white or black, as they are in various books of the series) and on her awareness of being female and in a traditionally female service role” (320).
Identifying with Blanche is easy for any person to do, regardless of race, class, or gender because, as Neely herself explains, “Blanche exemplifies what many people feel in their daily lives” (Collette). Barbara Neely’s books have opened up the mystery genre to a whole new audience while exposing many social truths.
Publications and Awards
By the Author
- “Rosie and Me.” The Things that Divide Us. Ed. Faith Conlon and Rachel Da Silva. Seattle: Seal P, 1985.
- “My Soul is a Witness.” Breaking Ice: an Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. Ed. Terry McMillan. New York: Viking, 1990.
- “The Dog Who Remembered too Much.” Tar Heel Dead: Tales of Mystery and Mayhem from North Carolina. Ed. Sarah R. Shaber. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005.
- Blanche on the Lam. New York: St. Martins, 1992.
- Blanche Among the Talented Tenth. New York: St. Martins, 1994.
- Blanche Cleans Up. New York: Viking, 1998.
- Blanche Passes Go. New York: Viking, 2000.
- Obsidian II
- Speaking for Ourselves: Women of the South. Ed. Maxine Alexander. New York: Pantheon, 1984.
- I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black Women Writers. Ed. Rebecca Carroll. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1994.
- The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy. Ed. Joni Adamson and Mei Mei Evans. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2002.
- Agatha Award for Blanche on the Lam, 1993
- Anthony Award for Blanche on the Lam, 1993
- Go on Girl Award from Black Women’s Reading Club for Blanche on the Lam, 1993
- Macavity Award for Blanche on the Lam, 1993
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Arnold, Ellen. “Investigating Social Injustice: Barbara Neely’s Blanche White Mysteries.” North Carolina Literary Review. 13 (2004): 79-84.
- Baily, Frankie Y. “Blanche on the Lam; or, The Invisible Women Speaks.” Diversity and Contemporary Authors. 26 Aug. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 23 Apr.2007. <http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Detective Fiction. Ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein. Bowling Green: Popular, 1999. 186-204.
- Dulcy, Brainard. Rev. of Blanche Among the Talented Tenth. Publishers Weekly. 241:29 (1994): 238.
- —. Rev. of Blanche Cleans Up. Publishers Weekly. 245.13 (1998): 73.
- English, Daylanne K. “The Modern in the Postmodern: Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, and the Politics of Contemporary African-American Detective Fiction.”American Literary History. 18.4 (2006): 772-96.
- Geiger, Shirley Tolliver and Kaufman, Natalie Hevener. “Barbra Neely’s Blanche White.” Clues: A Journal of Detection. 22:2 (2001): 95-108.
- Hathaway, Rosemary V. “The Signifying Detective: Barbara Neely’s Blanche White, Undercover in Plain Sight.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 46.4 (2005): 320-32.
- Jablon, Madelyn. “‘Making the Faces Black’: The African-American Detective Novel.” Changing Representations of Minorities East and West. Ed. Larry E. Smith. Honolulu: College of Languages, 1996. 26-40.
- Lockhart, Leslie. Rev. of Blanche on the Lam. The Black Scholar. 23:2 (1993): 56.
- Mueller, Monika. “A Cuban American ‘Lady Dick’ and an African American Miss Marple? The Female Detective in the Novels of Carolina Garcia-Agulera and Barbara Neely.” Sleuthing Ethnicity: The Detective in Multiethnic Crime Fiction. Ed. Dorothea Fischer-Hornung. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 20003. 114-32.
- Nelson, Corinne O. Rev. of Blanche Cleans Up. Black Collegian. 28:2 (1998): 19.
- Overmyer, Janet. “Barbara Neely.” Mystery Scene. 72 (2001): 19.
- Plummer, Bonnie C. “Subverting the Voice: Barbra Neely’s African American Detective.” Clues: A Journal of Detection. 20.1 (1999). 77-88.
- Tolson, Nancy D. “The Buttler Didn’t Do It so Now They’re Blaming the Maid: Defining a Black Feminist Trickster through the Novels of Barbara Neely.” South Central Review.18.3-4 (2001): 72-85.
- Washington, Elsie. Rev. of Blanche on the Lam. Essence. 22:12 (1992): 54.
- Witt, Doris. “Detecting Bodies: Barbara Neely’s Domestic Sleuth and the Trope of the Invisible Woman.” Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women. Ed. Michael Bennett. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001. 165-94.
- Woodford, Maize. Rev. of Blanche Among the Talented Tenth. The Black Scholar. 25:3 (1995): 72.
- Zaleski, Jeff. Rev. of Blanche Passes Go. Publishers Weekly. 247:22 (2000): 55.
- Collette, Ann. “Damn She Done It.” Ms. Magazine (June/July 2000).
- “An Interview with Barbara Neely.” Sleuthing Ethnicity: The Detective in Multiethnic Crime Fiction. Ed. Dorothea Fisher-Hornung. Madison: Associated UP, 2003. 299-307.
- “An Interview with Barbara Neely.” Harvard Review 5 (Fall 1993): 107-16.
- Interview. The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. Ed. Rosemary Herbert. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.