Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely


published 1992


Blanche on the Lam

[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.”

“Yes, ma’am.”


 
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.















12 comments:

  1. Oh, I'd heard about this series, Moira, and it's so good to know that it's finding new life. I love that commentary on how long it takes for Blanche to acquaint her employers with the fact that she's an actual human being, just as they are. I really must sample this series. I remember hearing it was good when it was first out, and just missed the boat that time.

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    1. I think it's a very interesting series Margot, and well worth re-visiting. I am so glad it's found another life....there are four in the series apparently, and I will hope to read them all...

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  2. I agree with you about 'The Help' - I found it very odd that it asked the reader to give the credit for hard-won real-life victories to a fictional character. This series is new to me and I'm going to download one for a plane journey. Many thanks

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    1. Yes, the book The Help made me quite uncomfortable. There was a joke going the rounds about the film: that the truthful advertising slogan would be 'White People solve racism. You’re welcome, black people’ - that seemed to sum it up...

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  3. Nice to see your take on this book. I have had a copy for a while but have never read it. I will have to move it up in the stacks. I cannot comment too much on The Help because I have not read it. I would have been interested in reading it if a black woman had written it.

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    1. Your last sentence: exactly. And that's the big thing I like about these books. They are very quick, easy reads too.

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  4. I may have one of these books not sure to be honest. I'd like to read one, doubt I'll stretch to all four though.

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    1. One'll do - go checking those tubs! It's a Brash Books reprint, they could always send you one of them....

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  5. I've never heard of this series and am now desperate to read them -- great to hear they are being republished. Thanks.

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    1. They're really worth reading, I think, even if just for the interest of their setting and heroine. And you can get them on Kindle now.

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  6. Moira, I don't know the author or her Blanche series but you have pricked my curiosity about this rather unusual protagonist.

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    1. Definitely worth a look, Prashant, with a very different take on life.

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