August 5, 2014

Facing A Ghost of The Past

Barbara Neely's accidental detective, Blanche White, whom we met in Blanche On The Lam, the first novel in Barbara Neely’s series, has come full circle in the fourth and apparently last novel of the series.
For eight years Blanche has been trying to move past the time a white man, the son of one of her customers, raped her. She feels like she is in a game of Monopoly stuck at Go. To get over the trauma of being raped, she has to find a way to pass GO. Her return to Farleigh, North Carolina to help her childhood friend Ardell run a catering business and possibly become a partner presents her the opportunity to exact revenge on the rapist.

She flees in fear the first time she sees at one of the functions they cater David Palmer, the man who raped her. Nevertheless, she becomes obessessed with finding a way to hurt him financially and socially. The opportunity to search for dirt on him presents itself when Archibald, the attorney for the family she worked for and almost got killed in Blanche On The Lam, hires her. The remaining family member, Mumsfield, who has downs syndrome, is engaged to marry David’s sister Karen Palmer. Archibald thinks she is only after Mumsfield’s money. He asks Blanche to find out all she can about Karen.

Our amateur detective turned professional without a license spends most of her time searching dirt on David Palmer. Her efforts leads to her possibly involvement in the investigation of the murder of a young white woman, Maybelle Jenkins, and puts her life in danger. She receives a threatening phone call, a rock is thrown through the window of Miz Alice, the name of the house in which she lives, and a pickup truck runs her off the road near her house.

Over half way into Blanche Passes Go, the narrator announces the theme of the novel: "She added her mother to the circle of bruised women that included Blanche herself, her neighbor across the street, poor dead Maybelle, Daisy, even Ardell...." This theme of abused women and their reactions to abuse is suggested rather than explicit in the tightly controlled plot that has an I-didn’t-see-that-coming twist.

Examining the reactions of women in abusive relationships, Neely doesn’t preach, doesn’t step in as the author, but allows the message to come through dialogues that Blanche has with other women. Blanche’s romance with Thelvin, a conductor on Amtrak, who is a jealous man but also a good man, proves that not all men are dogs who abuse women.

Blanche Passes Go is the best of the four novels in the series. I felt from the beginning that it was the last one, and that the other novels were preparation for this final, well-constructed story. Its only fault is the descriptions of food preparation make it a little longer than it need be.

I think, like me, you’ll miss the professional maid turned amateur detective.