May 4, 2014

The Accidental Sleuth

I took the title of this essay from the blurb on the back cover of Barbara Neely’s first novel Blanche on the Lam (published in 1992). Of the main character, author Jane Langton writes, “Blanche is the most refreshing accidental sleuth to appear in a long time….”

Barbara Neely was born in 1941 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, according to the information on Wikipedia, and attended the University of Pittsburg. In an interview in the AARP magazine on February 1, 2011, Neely relates her experience as a “self-taught author”

One of my throwback urges, as a self-taught author, was to explore what could be taught about writing. So I entered a university M.F.A. program. There were days when I felt as if I’d been thrown into the kiddie pool. But from this experience came many rewards: a stint working with middle school writers, a couple of semesters volunteering as a reading-writing facilitator for a group of adult women and plans to use my new degree to start a program for adult learners in collaboration with community centers and other groups. I hadn’t anticipated any of this at 60.

This self-taught mystery writer has written only four novels featuring her accidental detective.

In the opening chapter of this suspenseful novel, maid Blanche White stumbles into a dangerous situation when she flees from the court house after being sentence to 30 days in jail for writing a bad check and coincidentally finds her way to the house in which the employment agency had scheduled her to work.

In the small town of Farleigh, North Carolina, Blanche lives from pay check to pay check. She often writes a check with the intention of making it good on payday. However, she fails one too many times to make good on the bad check. When a commotion in the hallway of the courtroom distracts the deputy escorting her to the restroom, Blanche takes advantage of the opportunity to escape through a side door.

After blindingly finding her way to the Carter house, Blanche moves with the family from the town house to the country house. Her employer, Grace, is the niece of the matriarch of the family, Emmeline Carter, who remains locked in her room in the country house. Blanche dislikes Grace’s husband Everett when she first meets him. She likes him even less when she discovers he is a friend of the sheriff who might discover Blanche is a wanted woman.

It doesn’t take her long to discover this good old southern family has secrets. She begins to suspect the secrets might have led to five murders, two of which are in the past. Her suspicion leads to danger that will take all of her strength and wits to avoid.

Forty-year-old Blanche is dark-skinned, stout, five foot seven woman who cares for her dead sister’s two children. She makes a good amateur sleuth because she doesn’t always trust physical evidence: “She lived too long to rely on concrete evidence to tell her whether something was true.” Like Christie’s Miss Marple, she is a keen observer of human nature. Although she puts on the mask for the white folks to hide her intelligence, she is very articulate.

Neely does a good job of conveying Blanche’s ideas without using dialect even when she wear the mask to hide her intelligence to fool the white folks. Like many traditional mysteries where the setting is isolated, in this case, the violence is off stage until the end when it comes at you full force.

Coincidences happen in life, but If a writer uses one in fiction, she must make it believable. The coincidence of Blanche blindly finding the very house the employment agency had assigned her to clean is acceptable because it initiates the action.

Langton was right. Blanche is very refreshing. I like her. You might well come to the same conclusion once you read and enjoy Blanche on the Lam.

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