As part of my goal this year to read more non-white authors, I've been scooping up lots of things that are a little bit outside my wheelhouse as they cross my radar. This is how I ended up getting a copy of Blanche on the Lam from Netgalley. It's the first in a mystery series by Barbara Neely, written in the 1990s and being reissued now.
I don't read a ton of mysteries, and this one was unlike any that I'd read before. Really, it almost didn't read as a mystery to me, since I wasn't even sure what the actual question was regarding what was going on until very late in the game. There were clues and characters and things, but the level on which this book worked for me was a social examination.
Blanche is a black maid living in Atlanta, and she's in some trouble. She's bounced some checks, and instead of a fine, she's sentenced to 30 days in jail. With two kids (her niece and nephew) to take care of and already struggling financially, this couldn't be a worse situation. So when her escort disappears in a scuffle at the courthouse, Blanche impulsively walks away. Suddenly, she's on the run and in even more trouble.
Luckily, the cleaning service she works for has assigned her to a week-long live-in job outside of town. Figuring this is a good place to lay low and make a plan while her mother watches the kids, Blanche shows up for work and finds herself on a rural estate of a strange family who clearly have a lot of secrets.
The secrets themselves don't come together till quite late in the book--there is murder, but it's near the end. Mostly, there's a powerful sense of something very fishy going on, and an even more powerful sense that the absolute best thing a black lady with common sense can do is keep her nose out of it. No, this book is carried by its observations about Blanche, the world she lives in, and how she holds her life together. And in that, it's a gold mine.
I'm a sucker for stories told from the below-stairs point of view; I'm always wondering about the teachers' point of view about the high schoolers in my YA novels, and the children who are on the run with your heroes to keep your action thrillers heartwarming. So Blanche's very opinionated thoughts about her employers are delicious. I love how she sits in their chairs and bathes in their tubs when they're not around, not for the luxury, but to claim back her own humanity when she's seen as a tool all day. I love how she has a huge network of friends to call on, and the amount of investigating she can do with sheer gossip.
There's so much about being black in the world, in America, and in Atlanta here. There's the unspoken solidarity that exists even when you can't keep secrets, and the risk of finding yourself overly fond of employers who don't see you as fully human. Blanche's alienation from the people around her--her sense of her own differentness--was uncomfortable, but it was supposed to me. It's what gave her the space to investigate, and our glimpse into it was really fascinating.
The next book in the series is called Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, and I have that from Netgalley, too. I'm looking forward to seeing Blanche from a new angle--a working class woman in a ritzy black resort town. I hope, as I keep reading these books, that I get a chance to spend some time with Blanche somewhere she feels completely at home, too.