by ZJ Czupor
She created the first Black female amateur sleuth
The first published African American mystery is credited to Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930). She was an African American journalist, playwright, historian, and novelist. Born in Portland, Maine, she wrote four novels and numerous short stories.
She made history when she penned a short story called “Talma Gordon,” which appeared in the October 1900 edition of The Colored American Magazine, which was also America’s first monthly periodical covering African American arts and culture. Hopkins also edited the magazine and addressed Black history, racial discrimination, economic justice, and women’s role in society.
Her short story concerns the murder of Puritan descendant Jonathan Gordon. At trial, his blonde and blue-eyed daughter, Talma, is implicated. Despite being declared innocent, the townsfolk believe Talma killed her father after he discovered her mixed racial heritage.
However, it would be another 92 years, 1992, before the first Black amateur female sleuth would appear in an American novel.
The author is Barbara Neely (1941-2020).
She was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in a community of predominant Pennsylvania Dutch speaking residents. She was the only African American child to attend her Catholic elementary and high school. She said she “felt by turns invisible and on display.” (The Boston Globe, Obituary, March 11, 2020).
She was a nontraditional student and never earned an undergraduate degree but obtained a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971.
After her graduate work, she advocated on behalf of women released from prison, was named executive director of Women for Economic Justice, and in the inner city of Philadelphia, helped young African Americans deal with housing and gang problems. She also served as director of the YMCA, before heading a consulting firm for nonprofits.
When Neely began writing around the age of 30, she said, “I didn’t know an adjective from an adverb, and I didn’t know writers who were starving. If you grow up poor and Black, you know you can’t help your mother pay the mortgage by writing.”
In 1981, she published her first short story “Passing the Word,” in Essence magazine” But it took another ten years before she would write and publish her first novel, Blanche on the Lam (St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
In writing that novel, Neely created the first Black female series sleuth in mainstream American fiction.
Her protagonist, Blanche White, is a spunky, irreverent amateur detective who works as a maid. Neely said Blanche’s invisibility gave her an advantage to find clues and solve mysteries and she chose Blanche’s profession, as a domestic worker, carefully. She said, “Invisible people see everything but are rarely seen. And who knows more than the people who empty your wastebaskets and wash your underwear?” (“All Things Considered,” NPR, March 11, 2020).
In the opening chapter, a judge sentences Blanche to thirty days in jail for writing bad checks. While she visits the courthouse toilet, confusion ensues in the halls and Blanche escapes into the fictious streets of Farleigh, North Carolina, where a wealthy family mistakes her for the housekeeper they’ve been expecting. She decides to stay with them and hide out from the law but soon finds herself in the middle of a murder, and a sheriff who may be extorting one of Blanche’s family members.
Kirkus Reviews describes Blanche’s employer as “a Faulknerian cast of oddballs who may be trying to kill each other off to claim a southern fortune.” (Feb. 4, 1992).
Blanche on the Lam, launched out of the chute to great acclaim. The novel won the Agatha Award, the Anthony Award, and Macavity Award for best first novel. The Black Women’s Reading Club also awarded it the Go on Girl! Award.
In the next eight years, Neely wrote three more Blanche White mysteries:
- Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (St. Martin’s Press, 1994)
- Blanche Cleans Up (Viking/Penguin, 1998); and
- Blanche Passes Go (Viking/Penguin, 2020).
Her series has been translated into Czech, French, German and Japanese.
In her second novel, Blanche Cleans Up, Neely gives us a clue to Blanche’s character—she writes: “Once in a while she’d been messed with so badly, she’d had to let her finger slip into somebody’s drink, put too much salt or hot pepper in the eggs rancheros, or add a couple of tablespoons of cat foot to the beef bourguignon.”
In all of her novels, Blanche solves mysteries while Neely addresses racism among Black people and the hostility between lighter skinned and darker skinned African Americans, violence against women, class boundaries and sexism. Furthermore, she used her novels to question the standards of female beauty related to body size, figure, hair color and other features.
In a 2000 interview with Ms. Magazine, Neely said, “I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects and it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write.”
She also said, “…the understanding came to me that a full life would mean doing something I was absolutely in love with doing, whether it paid or not.”
Award-winning mystery author Kellye Garrett told the New York Times, “She (Neely) paved the way for us. There was a time that publishers finally realized that books by and about Black people would be read by the masses.” (March 11, 2020)
On Dec. 13, 2020, Mystery Writers of American announced Barbara Neely as the 2020 Grand Master. MWA board president Meg Gardiner described her as “a groundbreaking author, and MWA is delighted to recognize her work, in which she tackles tough social issues with an unflinching eye and a wry sense of humor.” The awards banquet was held in New York City on April 30.
Unfortunately, Neely could not accept the award. She died of complications from heart disease on March 2 at a hospital in Philadelphia. She was seventy-eight.
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Before her writing career took off, Neely lived and worked in Raleigh, North Carolina for a brief time. She said she hated Raleigh and used the town as her fictitious setting of Farleigh in Blanche on the Lam.
While Neely said author Toni Morrison (1931-2019) inspired her as a writer, she credited her publishing success to bestselling African American authors Terry McMillan and Walter Mosley. McMillan’s first novel, Mama, came out in 1987 and proved to the publishing industry there was an audience for black books. Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins detective novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (W.W. Norton, 1990), won the 1991 Shamus Award for “Best First P.I. Novel.”Neely credited the interest in her debut novel to the public interest in the former two.