[Blanche has come to work as live-in maid for Grace]
Grace took Blanche up the back stairs to a small room… “It’s a pleasant enough little room, don’t you think?”
“Well, it ain’t going to spoil me, that’s for sure,” Blanche told her. She might have to sleep in this mousehole, but she’d be damned if she’d act grateful.
Grace chose not to address the issue. “I’ll be waiting in the kitchen when you’ve changed.” She closed the door firmly behind her.
In the shallow clothes closet there were two washed and starched gray uniforms with white collars and cuffs and small white aprons to match….
[Later] Blanche had hoped to slip up the back stairs to put away some of the laundry she’d done after breakfast…
“We like our bed linen changed every three days at this time of year… and please remember, just a a hint of starch in Mr Everett’s shirts.”
observations: The Blanche books are being republished as ebooks. This was the first of this 1990s series, and I read it when it came out, so can attest to the fact that it was ground-breaking. The mysteries and the settings and the characters in the books are very well-done, but not earth-shaking. But Blanche is an African-American woman who earns her living by cleaning, and that made her pretty much a unique protagonist at that time. I, like many people, relished this, and relished the simple trick of seeing the villainous goings-on through the eyes of a servant. It suits the genre: Blanche is smart, and observant, and has seen life: her employers of course under-estimate her.
As the book says ‘Usually it took three to five cleaning sessions for a new employer of the racist jackass variety to stop talking to her in loud simple sentences. It took an additional 15 to 50 before she was acknowledged as a bona fide member of the human race.’
Neely convincingly shows a world of racism, snobbery, exploitation and just plain unpleasantness – but Blanche is more than equal to everything thrown at her.
In this story Blanche takes a job to get herself out of trouble – she goes off with a white family to their country home, and can immediately tell there is something funny going on.
The rhythms of Blanche’s day form a nice counterpart to her enquiries into the crime, and sometimes they go together:
She put just a touch too much salt in the omelette and made the salad dressing a bit too tart. She knew a poorly seasoned meal could be just the irritant to snap a person’s nerves and make them say or do something rash.One of the great things about this book is that author Barbara Neely is African-American, she isn’t just visiting Blanche, and that therefore: this book is not The Help (which was vastly over-rated imo), even though it won’t sell anything like as many copies.
Long ago I took a look at the ethics and etiquette of employing household help in the online magazine Slate.
The books are being re-published by Brash Books, who are also responsible for the resurrection of yesterday's Death of a Detective.
The picture is from the Library of Congress, and shows a maid in her room in San Diego.