Saturday, January 3, 2015

Blanche on the Lam

Blanche on the Lam
Barbara Neely
1992 Penguin Books

reviewed by carol

3/5 stars

Remember how I said I grew up on Christie? It took college to really open my eyes to the insight that I had read very few books by authors who were not white. It became a personal project to increase the diversity of my reading (while still hanging in my favorite genres of mystery, sci-fi and fantasy). I was scanning through my college’s small bookstore, looking for my books for the semester when I saw the Penguin paperback edition of Blanche, no doubt on the list for some literature class. I quickly grabbed it and settled down for a read. Blanche on the Lam held my attention, but even more than that, it shares and affirms an experience seldom portrayed in literature. 

Blanche is an African-American domestic worker, recently moved to North Carolina after unsettling events in NYC. She’s barely making ends meet, living with her opinionated mother and taking care of her deceased sister’s two children. When called into court for a bounced check, nerves and claustrophobia get the best of her and she makes a run for it before she can be taken into jail for a multiple-month sentence. Needing someplace to stay, she decides to show up at a temporary agency job she had already refused, claiming to be her replacement. It turns out a couple, their elderly aunt and disabled cousin will be traveling to their country retreat for a week, giving the normal servants a week off. As she tries to mitigate the idiosyncrasies of her new employers and come up with a strategy to deal with being a fugitive, she realizes her employers are acting extremely strange, even for white people. When an elderly black gardener shares his own concerns with Blanche, she starts to fear for her safety.

Once I got past my struggle with the idea that Blanche would become a fugitive over a check-cashing case, I enjoyed the plot. It begins more like literary fiction, with Blanche primarily focused on solving her current problem, as well as developing a strategy for caring for herself and the children. Tempted to go AWOL from her life, the story is about her as much as the mystery. In fact, while she notes the oddness in her employer’s household, she isn’t really drawn into their troubles until the black gardener is found dead.  Unlike many amateur sleuths, Blanche is a reluctant investigator, adding a more realistic angle to the story. 

“Blanche had learned long ago that signs of pleasant stupidity in household help made some employers feel more comfortable, as though their wallets, their car keys, and their ideas about themselves were all safe. Putting on a dumb act was something many black people considered unacceptable, but she sometimes found it a useful place to hide.”

Characterization is interesting, and clearly a strong point of the mystery. Blanche is a practical, straight-forward person that has realized that sometimes the best way to get along is to keep her mouth shut, but she’s only able to do that for so long. Despite her own relative poverty, Blanche has had a wealth of experiences providing insight into human nature. Neely stated in an interview that she started the Blanche story as a way to deal with writer’s block on another project and was surprised by the enthusiastic reception Blanche received. As a lifelong activist, she was interested in presenting “political fiction” as she wrote from the perspective of the underrepresented, that of a “poor black woman (a nice interview with Ms. here). 

There’s aspects that do make this feel like a first book. Although the plotting and characterization are quite good, the tone can be a bit didactic, with Blanche doing a great deal of ‘telling’ through her inner voice. While insightful, it could have been less heavy-handed, done through memories or experiences. During my second read, I found myself far less tolerant of it; not that I minded the message, but that it could have been so much meaningfully relayed through action. Otherwise, the writing style is sophisticated, with nice variety. Blanche’s observations give a nice sense of the opulent homes and the Carolina setting.

A number of the reviews I’ve seen mentioned that they found this book through criticism of The Help, and I’d definitely encourage reading about Blanche over the moviefied version. I recommend the series it if you are a mystery fan interested in broadening your reading experience. Won Agatha, Macavity and Anthony Awards for best first novel 1992.

cross posted at my blog at