Blanche Cleans Up, by Barbara Neely ****

blanchecleansupBlanche Cleans Up, which is #3 in the Blanche White mystery series, is more than a murder mystery, as the numerous word plays in the title imply. This is a smart, funny-yet-serious series, and I am thrilled to be able to review another one for Net Galley and Brash Books, who provided me with a DRC. This title was released at the beginning of May, and so you ought to be able to buy it right now.

Blanche is a single African-American woman who chooses to do domestic work so that she can select her employers. She is good at her work, and so anybody she doesn’t like, doesn’t get to hire her. But in this episode, she has been roped into a job she otherwise would not do, at the behest of a family member. Inez, their usual cook and head housekeeper, is in desperate need of a vacation, and Inez can’t go unless she can guarantee a good substitute to take her place. Blanche, who sometimes has an acid tongue but also a heart of purest marshmallow, caves in and agrees to step in for a week. Of course, after all hell breaks loose, Inez is gone for at least two weeks. Who wouldn’t be, under the circumstances?

Neely is a seriously brainy writer. Meta-meta-meta-cognition is all over the place in Blanche’s internal narratives. It’s an approachable way to talk about social issues, primarily race, but also about sexism, the rights of gay and lesbian people, and of course, about class. So if you are socially conservative…if you are conservative, why are you reading my review at all? What are you thinking? Are you new here? Get out get out get out. Shoo! Scoot. Skedaddle.

Ah. I feel better now. Gave me quite a turn. Anyway, those who are looking for a mystery because their brain is tired and they just want a cozy read—and I do this myself from time to time, nothing wrong with it—will need a different book, because Blanche books are really about social issues, and the mystery is merely an approachable forum with which to address them. Not that pacing, characterization, and story arc are missing; far from it! I was riveted from the seventy percent mark and had to finish it. It’s a solid story, not literary fiction, but a good mystery. But if you are looking for a good story and think you will just ignore the issues under discussion, you are mistaken, because they are so strongly interwoven here that it’s impossible to just read it for the mystery aspect.

I should also mention that the intended audience appears to be Black folk and other people of color. That doesn’t mean Caucasians can’t enjoy it, and it may be a good lesson in empathy, especially if you haven’t done a lot of introspection. At times, Neely echoes WEB DuBois on the color line; in the elite white folks’ household, a young Black man who was close to the child in residence was welcome through the front door…until.

Neely weaves a lot of plot points and a lot of issues into one deft tale. It’s really well crafted. I especially enjoyed the development of Blanche’s adopted son (nephew whose mother is dead) along with neighborhood activist Aminata. And I liked what she did with her teenage relative who developed a serious problem.

When you finish the book, you almost have to have a heart and mind that is a little more open to types of people you might have unthinkingly dismissed before. There’s really nothing else like it. How often do you get the opportunity to improve yourself and have fun at the same time? Do it!

1 thought on “Blanche Cleans Up, by Barbara Neely ****

  1. I like your review, but I don’t agree it is aimed primarily at black folk. I’m sure you will agree that the issues she raises affect us all, but more importantly, this is a voice that is articulate enought to tell white folks what black folks are really thinking. That in itself is worth its weight in gold. We can’t all meet Barbara Neely & talk to her personally, so her putting out her opinion on things in these books is a gift–for blacks and whites. Anyway, this is what I thought about this book.


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