July 8, 2014

The Accidental Detective Solves Another Case

Sometimes you meet a character in fiction you admire for her down-to-earthiness and who takes pride in a menial job. Barbara Neely’s Blanche White is such a character. She is a professional maid and loves her work: “One of the major reasons she chose to do day work was being able to pick up and drop clients as she saw fit. This meant she didn’t have to take no mess from nobody, her preferred way of living.” I also like her because of her sleuthing skills.
The cleaning up she does in Blanche Cleans Up, the third novel in the series, is solve two murders in Roxbury, the black community of Boston, while doing her maid thing in an upscale white community.

While Cousin Charlotte and Miz Inez are on vacation, Blanche takes Miz Inez’s place working for Allister and Felicia Brindle. In addition to cooking meals, she supervises Carrie, Felicia’s personal maid, and Wanda, the Irish cleaning woman who comes in twice a week. Trouble enters her life when she learns that Allister is planning to run for Governor of Massachusetts. He believes Miz Inez’s son Ray-Ray may have stolen a videotape containing embarrassing information. Blanche also believes Ray-Ray is the culprit because she saw him enter Allister’s room while the Brindles were out.

Blanche doesn't think Ray-Ray and his friend Miz Barker died accidentally. Ray-Ray allegedly hit his head on the community swimming pool diving board. Miz Barker allegedly died of a heart attack in front of the grocery store she owned for 50 years.

Like all good servants, Blanche is nosey and listens to her employer's conversations through the tiny crack of an open door. She over hears Allister talking to a group of Black leaders, one of whom, Reverend Maurice Samuelson, later, acting on behalf of Allister, attacks her and insists she give up the videotape. Samuelson doesn’t realize that making an enemy of Blanche White is a serious mistake. His actions convince her she is on the right track in finding Ray-Ray and Miz Barker’s killer. Because of Neely’s storytelling skill, I was unable to identify the killer until the very end. Thus, the revelation was a true surprise.

Blanche learns that Allister and Felicia are not a happy couple, and that they disagree about their son Marc’s being gay. However, she manages to avoid involving herself in the question of who killed Felicia’s personal trainer and sometime lover Saxe Winton. Not to worry, because the killer is revealed in dramatic and satisfactory fashion.

Neely deftly uses Blanche’s personal problems to help create tension. She is in danger and yet has to protect those she loves. The motifs of lead poisoning in some of the buildings in the projects, legalized prostitution, homosexuality, and raising children do not slow the action. They add to the story’s authenticity. Neely's deft storytelling gives Blanche a voice that makes it seem she is the first person narrator.

Blanche Cleans Up is better structured than the first two novels. Like me, you’ll like Blanche White because she doesn’t take no mess from Allister or Samuelson.