Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’ve been many crime novels that feature the wealthy and privileged. But not as many are written from the point of view of their employees. What’s interesting about this is that those people often know quite a lot – usually more than their employers may think they know. Let’s take a look at one such story today and turn the spotlight on Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, the first of her Blanche White series.
Blanche is a Black woman who makes her living as a housekeeper/cook. She works for a temporary agency, but is trying to build up her clientele. That’s not an easy task in the North Carolina town in which she lives. As the novel begins, Blanche is facing serious consequences for having written a bad check. She can’t face the thought of being imprisoned and unable to care for her sister’s children, Taifa and Maliq, whom she has more or less adopted, so she tricks the bailiff who’s supposed to be watching her and leaves the courthouse. She decides that the best way to get out of this situation is to go to the most recent temporary housekeeping job she’d accepted, but cancelled. She doesn’t expect anyone to know that she wasn’t planning to show up. Her thinking is that this job will give her the opportunity to hide out for a bit until she can solve her money problems.
When she arrives at her assignment, Blanche is met by her new employer Grace, who gives her instructions and tells her to plan to join the family on a trip to their country house. Meanwhile, Blanche also meets Grace’s husband Everett, and cousin Mumsfield, as well as her Aunt Emmeline. Blanche is not overly impressed with Grace or Everett (more on that shortly), but she settles into her job.
Soon enough, Blanche begins to notice some strange things going on. For one thing, there’s obvious tension within the family. And although she’s naturally curious, Blanche can’t find out exactly why. Mumsfield has a mild form of Down’s Syndrome, so although he could be a valuable source of information, it’s hard to communicate with him at times. The gardener, Nate Taylor, knows more than he’s saying, but doesn’t really reveal very much. There are also questions about Aunt Emmeline; she hasn’t been herself lately, and it sometimes seems that Grace wants Blanche to have as little to do with her as possible.
Then there’s the matter of Sheriff Stillwell, who seems to spend a lot of time at the house. Blanche is especially concerned about him, because she’s afraid he may remember her from her court disappearance. All seems well enough on that front, though, until one night when the sheriff dies of what’s put down to suicide. Blanche begins to be very concerned that his death might be blamed on her, since she’s Black, the sheriff was White, and she has a history with the court. What’s more, he was at the house often enough that it’s quite plausible she could have reason to want him out of the way.
Then, to make matters worse, Nate dies in what’s called an accidental fire. But Blanche knows full well that it wasn’t an accident. Now she is sure that both Nate and Stillwell were killed, and probably by the same person. Nate’s death, in particular, upsets Blanche. As much out of anger over that as over self-protection, she works to find out who the killer is. In the end, Blanche has to uncover some dark family history and past secrets to find the murderer.
One of the important elements in this novel is the social structure Neely depicts. In Farleigh, North Carolina, Whites, especially those with money, make the rules. Whites from poorer backgrounds are lower in this caste system, but they are still higher on the social ladder than Blacks. In several places in the novel, we see examples of the way that social structure plays out. It’s not the reason for the murders, but it is the context within which Blanche moves. For example, Grace and Everett are dismissive of Blanche, make a lot of assumptions about her, and treat her with autocratic disdain. At the same time, there are moments when they almost seem to be confiding in her. It’s a very interesting – and revelatory – look at the relationships that have developed through the years between White employers and their Black employees. And Blanche sometimes has to work to remind herself that no matter how kind one or another might be at any given moment, or how much sympathy she may feel, there is still a gulf between her and those for whom she works. She can only remain independent as a person if she sees the arrangement as a strictly business affair.
In one way, that social gulf serves her needs. Since she is Black, she is more or less invisible to Whites. So she is able to listen and find out a great deal. She also ‘plugs into’ the communication network of supportive friends and relatives who themselves hear things and know things. She learns quite a lot of the past history she needs to learn by doing that.
Despite the fact that Blanche is part of a very rigid system, she’s made it work for her. She’s got a set of close friends, and has developed a way of communicating with her employers that reveals only what she wants to show, and leaves her free to listen and learn from what she hears. She is a strong character, too, who is determined to create and maintain her own identity within this system. That said, though, Blanche isn’t perfect. She makes mistakes, draws wrong conclusions at times, and doesn’t always make the choices we might make. But she is independent, very resourceful, and quick-thinking. Blanche is a smart woman who makes the best of a difficult situation.
The solution to the mystery is sad, and things are not all right again just because the case is solved. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that this isn’t really a case of the police leading the culprit away in handcuffs. But we do get the sense that life will go on. Certainly Blanche will. And the novel is made less bleak as Blanche makes some very witty observations about the people she works for, and some of the other people she encounters.
Blanche on the Lam shows the power of social structure, and the ways that people find to work around it. It tells the story of murders that tie past to present, and features a woman who refuses to be a victim of her situation. But what’s your view? Have you read <emBlanche on the Lam? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 30 November/Tuesday 1 December – Death In Breslau – Marek Krejewski
Monday 7 December/Tuesday 8 December – Blue Monday – Nicci French
Monday 14 December/Tuesday 15 December – White Heat – M.J. McGrath