#20BooksOfSummer No One – Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam (1992)

A copy of Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely. It is a plain white cover with the title a sillhouette of a plump black woman wearing an apron.

Barbara Neely was a lifelong activist and a writer who was best known for her Blanche White mystery novels which feature a black female detective. I didn’t know anything about Barbara Neely until I read an article following her death in March this year. I’d been looking for a new mystery to read and it sounded interesting, so I thought I’d check out the first book in the series.

Blanche on the Lam begins with Blanche being sentenced to thirty days in jail for inadvertently passing bad cheques. She makes a living as a domestic worker for white people, but times have been tough since she moved back to her home town of Fairleigh in North Carolina where employers have been less than punctual with her wages. Terrified at the prospect of prison, Blanche uses a distraction at the courthouse as an opportunity to escape, but then she has no idea what to do next. As she wanders around a wealthy neighbourhood, a white woman mistakes her for the domestic worker she has requested from an agency. Blanche decides to go along with the story. After all, the family’s country house could be a good place to lie low while she waits for her tax rebate to come through. Then she can pick up her kids from her mother’s house and head back to New York.

But Blanche is about to get a lot more than she bargained for. Her new employer, Grace, and her husband, Everett, seem to be trying to get their hands on their eldery Aunt Emmeline’s money. The money has been left to Grace’s cousin Mumsfield, a young man who has down’s syndrome, but the couple seem to have pursuaded Emmeline to change her will. Pretty typical behaviour for rich white people thinks Blanche, but as the days pass, the situation becomes increasingly sinister. Why has Aunt Emmeline suddenly become a violent alcholic? Why won’t Grace let Mumsfield see her? Why is the black gardener, Nate, so cagey about the family? What is the nature of Everett’s strange relationship with the local sheriff? Nobody is quite what they seem. Then someone dies and Blanche must figure out what’s going on before she finds herself coming to the attention of either the police or a murderer.

Blanche on the Lam takes the tropes of the classic ‘cosy’ mystery and turns them on their head to create something quite subversive. In classic crime fiction, servants are often the people who can see what’s really going on, although they rarely understand exactly what they’ve seen, and they sometimes pay a high price when the murderer decides to silence them before they can speak. In Blanche, Neely picks up this trope of the domestic worker who sees more and runs with it, turning the hired help into the detective. Blanche is perfectly placed to investigate. She’s used to noticing things, she has access to all areas of the house, she isn’t taken in by her employers and is largely invisible to them. ‘A family couldn’t have domestic help and secrets’, thinks Blanche on p. 85.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Blanche’s only ally in the house is Mumsfield, the other character who sees things differently and is a lot more astute than people think. Neely has taken characters who are usually marginalised in crime fiction – working class black people and disabled people – and made them central to her story.

Blanche is a tremendous character: uncompromising, intrepid, fiercely proud and independent. She is a mother who didn’t want to be a mother. She is lonely, but chooses to remain single. She fights with her mother, but also depends on her for support. She is a black woman who is relentlessly critical of white supremacy, but who has chosen to make her living working for white people. Her name means ‘white white’ conveying the complexity and irony of her position as she tries not to compromise or abandon herself.

She’d come to understand that her desire was to avoid pain, a pain so old, so deep, its memory was carried not in her mind, but in her bones’.

p. 99

Blanche on the Lam is a lot more than just a cosy mystery. Neely made it clear that she orginally intended it to be a work of social commentary. It’s a book about inner and outer worlds, about appearances and depths. It’s about black women’s lives and how to develop the internal resources and networks to survive in a world that will crush you if it can, a world in which you know you won’t be given an inch. It’s about white supremacy, the legacy of slavery, and contemporary racism and police brutality. It’s also a response (and antidote) to literature that has represented black women as the devoted servants of white people (I noticed the reference to To Kill a Mockingbird on page 70).

While people were reading the book to find out who killed who and why, they were also getting a lot of information about race, class, gender and all the issues that I cared about

Barbara Neely

I’m looking forward to seeing what Blanche will do next and will definitely be reading the rest of this series. A good start to my #20BooksOfSummer.

More

LA Times, Barbara Neely, creator of black female detective series dies at 78

NPR, Remembering Barbara Neely, A Pioneer in Crime Fiction

The Novels of Joseph Hansen

Michael Nava has published a thoughtful article in LARB about the author Joseph Hansen Gay Noir Pioneer

I recommend reading the Dave Brandsetter mystery novels if you can get your hands on them. They feature an openly gay detective and offer a fascinating window onto the lives of gay men and, to some extent, lesbians in the 1960s and 70s. Hansen also has a really interesting writing style.

2018 Reading Round-Up

I was aiming to write regular posts about the books I enjoyed during 2018. In this, I mostly failed! I may still get around to writing about some of them, but in the meantime, here’s a long, rambling post about everything I read this year.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Image shows the cover of Trail of Lightening which features a young woman dressed in black standing on stop of a red car driven by a young man. She holds a gun and lightening plays around her.

My favourite book was Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), this story about a monster-hunter had me gripped from the beginning. It takes what is now quite a well-worn trope (young woman with special powers hunts monsters) and does something fresh with it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Check it out of you like Buffy, Wynonna Earp or Seanan Maguire’s books.

 

Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss came a close second. It’s is a lovely read in which the daughters of all your favourite nineteenth-century Gothic “mad scientists” get together and start to investigate their origins. I managed to write a post about this one.

 

 

 

The biggest surprise was Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, which came as part of a Humble Bundle I bought last year. I guess this is the joy of bundles, they make you try things that you wouldn’t usually pick up. The representation of women is not great and McCammon goes full throttle with the “magical negro” trope, but I got a lot out of this book. It captures something about the way children use fantasy to interpret their experiences of the world and the exploration of loss and grief is really powerful. I’m still thinking about it months later.

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

I read some good SF novels. The most enjoyable was probably Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, with its story of a ship looking for a new home for its cargo of frozen humans, only to arrive at a promising planet and find it already occupied by sentient spiders, the result of a science experiment gone wrong. I don’t think it quite lives up to the superlative praise it received, but it’s fun, hopeful and quite moving at the end.

 

 

400 Billion Stars by Paul McAuley is a thoughtful, beautifully written and very serious story about a telepath press-ganged into investigating alien life on an eerie planet. I will read more of his work. After Atlas, Emma Newman’s novel about the forms that slavery might take in the future, is very good, but so bleak and depressing I can’t say I really enjoyed it.

I quite liked Taylor’s Ark by Jody Lynn Nye, but didn’t warm to the protagonist and found it rather slow-going. She has several series though and I will try some of her other works. Caught in Crystal by Patrcia C. Wrede is a very light and pleasing fantasy with the unusual feature of a protagonist who is middle-aged and a mother.

Image shows the cover of All Systems Red. It features a painting of Murderbot in its full armour and helmetI read some novellas. I’m enjoying the adventures of Martha Well’s Murderbot (along with pretty much everyone else it seems) and read the first two in the series, All Systems Red and Artificial ConditionBinti by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely, but a little too YA for my tastes – get it for your daughters and nieces though! Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Arkfall is a nice, gentle SF story about an underwater civilisation.

 

 

I read far less short stories that usual. Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others is excellent, but the stories are very dense and challenging and, honestly, a lot of it went over my head! Maybe it wasn’t the right time for this one. I was quite excited by the conceit behind Alien Artifacts (ed Josh Palmatier at al), but found the stories disappointing. None of them really stood out for me.

I re-read a couple of beloved books, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Crime Fiction

Image shows the cover of What the Dead Know. It features a photograph of a girl in a red dress walking behind a tree. As she emerges her body has faded and become translucent.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman is probably the best serious, literary work of crime fiction that I read in 2018. Clever, elegant, haunting, but very dark and disturbing. I admired it more than I liked it.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex is good too. I saw the twist coming, but it didn’t really matter. I also read the second in her Ellie Hatcher series, City of Fear, which is entertaining, but comes with a massive content warning for depictions of sexualised violence against women.

I really liked The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, the first in her popular Vera Stanhope series, but was disappointed by the second novel, Telling Tales which is full of boring, unsympathetic characters – the only interesting person is dead and even Vera is sick of everyone by the end! I’ll probably try the next one though.

Image shows the cover of The Stranger Diaries. It features a painting of a flowering plant against a blue background with writingThe last book I finished in 2018 was The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths which is a really fun Gothic mystery. A good one to take on holiday.  I also loved Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a meta-fictional response to Agatha Christie and two solid mysteries for the price of one. These are both books written with the intention of entertaining the hell out of you, while also making some good points about the function of literature.

 

 

Speaking of Agatha Christie, I worked my way through all the Miss Marple novels in 2017 and was finishing up the short stories at the beginning of this year. The Thirteen Problems and Miss Marple’s Final Cases were both decent reads, but not really a patch on the novels. I also read one Poirot novel this year which was The Murder on the Orient Express. I knew the ending and it still had me gripped. I guess that’s why we call her a genius.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sovereign, the third in C.J. Samson’s Tudor detective series. This series is far more dudely than I would usually read, but it’s a world to sink into and has me hooked.

Image shows the cover the novel Stoner McTavish. This edition features a painting of the Grand Teton mountains with a Stoner sitting on a black horse in the foreground.

 

Special mention goes to Stoner McTavish, the first in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved lesbian detective series. It has its flaws but is very enjoyable and I would hate to see Stoner fall into obscurity. I wrote a post about this one.

 

 

I was disappointed by Stephen King’s Finders Keepers. Mr Mercedes certainly wasn’t King on top form, but it was a good read. Finders Keepers had an interesting premise, but I found the characters dull and too much of it was told from the POV of the extremely boring villain. I probably won’t bother with the next one.

General/Literary Fiction

Image shows the cover of Astray. It features a sepia toned photograph of a chain of old keys

I’ve been really off literary fiction for the last few years, so there isn’t much in this category. I liked the haunting stories in Emma Donoghue’s collection Astray enough to write about it.

Otherwise, it was all re-reading. I read Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, both for a lesbian book group I occasionally attend. I’m not really a Winterson fan, with the exception of Oranges and the memoir, which is basically another version of Oranges! I disliked Sexing the Cherry even more on reading it again. I’m still fond of Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s an important novel from a queer historical perspective, if not a great work of literature.

I usually re-read something by Jane Austen and this year it was Persuasion.

Non-Fiction

Image shows the cover of Forbidden Lives. It is a plain brown cover with the title and author's name in black capitals and a small Welsh dragon in black on the right hand sideMy favourite work of non-fiction this year was Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. As a Welsh LGBTQ person myself, I was delighted to see a book published about our history. I’m very aware of what a challenge this book was in terms of doing the research. The result is a collection of fascinating stories that in many ways highlight, and even celebrate, the ambiguities and elusiveness of queer lives in the past.

 

I read CN Lester’s Trans Like Me which I found an accessible and moving personal account of transgender experience. It covered a lot of issues and didn’t shy away from areas that might be considered challenging.

Image shows the cover of Eat Up. It features cartoonish drawings of good on a pink background

Then there was Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up, a delightful and thoughtful book of essays about food and eating which also has a queer and feminist sensibility. A very healing book, I think, and recommended for anyone trying to recover from eating disorders, or just wanting to get off the diet roller coaster.

 

 

 

The rest was a bit of a mixed bag. I’m fascinated by con artists and fraudsters, so I was keen to read The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. It was worth reading, but felt a bit padded out and repetitive. I would have liked more stuff on how to resist falling prey to confidence tricksters. I was a bit disappointed by Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni, but this was mainly because I wanted more on the actual lives of Neanderthals and this book is more the story of scientific advances and the study of the subject. How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman is readable, like all his books, but not as fascinating as Misquoting Jesus.

Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Made Simple does what it says on the tin and offers a nice, simple introduction to Buddhism, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Food

The best recipe book I bought this year was The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones. I feel I should say that I don’t entirely approve of Anna Jones’s general attitude to food and eating.  I’m all for eating your vegetables, but I find her approach rather restrictive and a bit inclined to pander diet fads like “clean-eating”. Also, many of these recipes are not cheap to make. Having said that, I do own all of her books because the actual recipes are innovative and delicious and The Modern Cook’s Year is a beautiful book full of ideas.

The most useful book I bought was The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer. My partner and I both work full-time and this book has helped us to feed ourselves well without too much work and washing up. I just bought the follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin, which looks just as good, and is exclusively vegan and vegetarian.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable, if unfocused, year of reading. I mainly read genre fiction. The majority of the books were by women (72%/20%), and a reasonable number by queer/LGBT authors, but I could do better at reading more books by people of colour.

If I had the time over again, I would set a page limit at which to ditch the book if I’m not liking it, because I still wasted too much time slogging all the way through some books that I didn’t enjoy.

Sarah Dreher, Stoner McTavish (1985)

I read the first book in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved mystery series in April. Stoner McTavish is an insecure butch lesbian, travel-agent and reluctant detective.  In this first outing, a friend of her eccentric aunt Hermione persuades her to investigate the man who’s married her granddaughter, Gwen. This results in Stoner following the couple on honeymoon to the Grand Teton National Park where she soon finds herself and Gwen in peril.

I really enjoyed the book, even though I thought it had quite a few flaws. I’ll get the criticism out of the way first. It felt a bit long for the amount of plot and the villain was very two-dimensional. This might be a personal thing, but I also found the tone a bit off because the cosiness of the mystery seemed to jar with the nastiness of the homophobic and misogynist abuse experienced by Stoner. Honestly, I found the love interest, Gwen, pretty bland too – she’s just kind of the “perfect woman”. Maybe she’ll get more interesting in the later books.

But the charm and humour outweighed the novel’s weaknesses. Stoner is delightful. Her insecurities can be little much at times, but we’ve all known (or been) someone like that.  Dreher is very good at writing quirky characters, witty dialogue and at creating a rich sense of place. I wanted to go and stay at the hotel in the park and sit by the fire drinking coffee.

Overall, a fun read and I’ll be trying the next book, Something Shady in which Stoner must go undercover in a rest home.

Sapphic Link Love #2

Some things I’ve found interesting recently.

Julie R. Enszer at Lamda Literary, Lying with women: Meditations on Barrie Jean Borich’s writing, lesbians and liberation 

Crime Reads, The Night Gertrude Stein met Dashiell Hammett (apparently she even had a go at writing a detective novel)

The Advocate, A 75-year-old lesbian discovery 

Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or, The Murder at Road Hill House (2008)

In 1860, Francis Saville, the youngest son of Mr and Mrs Kent of Road Hill House in Wiltshire was found murdered.  He had been take out of his bed during the night and apparently suffocated before being stabbed and having his throat cut.  His body had then been thrown into a privy in the garden where it was discovered.  The fact that all the doors and windows of the house had been locked from the inside on the night in question made it difficult to see how anyone outside the family could have committed the deed, but who was guilty? The parents? One of Mr Kent’s four children from his first marriage? One of the servants?

The case caused a sensation in Victorian England, not only because it involved the extremely gruesome and violent killing of a three-year old child, but because it struck at the heart of the Victorian cult of domesticity, of the ideology of the loving family, of the home as a safe refuge from the difficulties of the world.  The murder implied that terrible secrets may lurk behind the closed doors of an apparently respectable family.  It’s striking that so many Victorian men jumped to the conclusion that Francis had been killed because he’d seen his father having sex with his nurserymaid, an assumption that I think tells you more about the proclivities of Victorian gentlemen than it does any truth about the case.

Enter Detective Inspector Jonathan (Jack) Whicher, a man who’d joined the Metropolitan Police during its early days and made a name for himself as an exceptional detective with almost uncanny abilities.  Whicher was one of a cohort of intelligent, young working-class men who’d been recruited by the organisation and made their way to the top on merit alone, something that was impossible in most professions at the time.

The endorsements on the jacket are a bit breathless and over-the-top, but if you’re interested in the history of policing, crime and crime fiction, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a fast-paced and interesting read.  Jack Whicher contributed much to the development of the figure of the detective.  He was the model for characters like Inspector Bucket in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868).   Whicher played a part in the creation of the detective as a figure of difference, rather set apart from the rest of society, an exteme rationalist who isn’t subject to emotional manipulation like the rest of us.

The impact of the murder at Road Hill House also had an impact on fiction. It can be felt in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which often feature horrible goings’ on within supposedly respectable middle and upper-class families.  It also appears in some surprising places, such as M.R James horrifying ghost story, ‘The Mezzotint’.

From a feminist perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its depiction of how gendered discourses shape the way women are interpreted and treated by the criminal justice system.  Summerscale doesn’t really discuss this, but it’s very well illustrated by the case.  Setting his sights on Mr Kent’s 16 year-old daughter Constance as the most likely suspect, Whicher attempts to deploy the popular discourse of the degenerate, insane woman to support his case.  This figure (who was imagined to hide her mental disturbance and jealous rage behind a mask of calm) can be seen in fictions like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).  However, Whicher found himself in conflict with the counter-discourse of the innocent young girl, as Constance’s dignified behaviour inspired sympathy from the public.  Was she ‘mad’ and evil, or simply misunderstood and innocent?

Then there’s the nurserymaid, Elizabeth Gough, who Whicher thought innocent, but who fell under public suspicion mainly because of sexualized assumptions about working-class women.  Gough was pretty and viewed as being a bit above her station.  This led to a general feeling (the prefered version of men like Dickens who loudly and graphically promoted their belief in Elizabeth’s guilt), that she must have been up to something bad, probably with the master, and the poor woman’s life was almost ruined  as a result.

I find this phenomenon fascinating as well as disturbing.  Think of Lizzie Borden and Ruth Ellis.  We’ve seen its effects very recently in the trial of Amanda Knox.  Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a great fictional take on this issue.  Women, it seems, can never be taken at face value when we enter the Criminal Justice System. We are always read in relation to gendered discourses that pre-exist us and over which we have no control.  Of course this isn’t just an issue for women accused of crimes, gendered discourses are something that every woman who’s a victim of rape or domestic abuse must contend with if she decides to take a case to court and they may very well decide the outcome.

Interestingly, Whicher overplays his hand and loses his case.  His downfall may have been triggered by middle-class offence at the sight of a working-class ‘upstart’ apparently harassing a middle-class girl, and in the process assaulting the middle-class family itself.  Constance Kent was freed, but her story was not yet over and there are several more twists in the tale before the end.

Summerscale attempts to solve the case and I think her conclusion is certainly a possibility, but we’ll never really know what happened to Francis Saville and the Road Hill House murder remains a haunting case.

I’m now looking forward to reading Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Different portrayals of Sherlock Holmes

Post about different portrayals of Sherlock Holmes on Tor.com.

I love Sherlock Holmes so much that I daren’t even start reading The Adventures unless I know I’ve got time to read through the entire series.  As a teenager, I think I was attracted to Holmes as this queer figure who existed outside the norms of marriage and family.  In terms of portrayals, I am strictly a Jeremy Brett woman and will resist watching anyone else in the role.  I’m still feeling quite traumatized from seeing the trailer for the new film in the cinema.