ZJ CZUPOR’S MYSTERY MINUTE: A Literary Pioneer, She Created the First Black Woman Sleuth

by | Apr 12, 2022 | Mystery Minute | 4 comments

By ZJ Czupor

This author didn’t hit her literary stride until late in life.

After a successful career as a criminal justice advocate, as the director of a community-based corrections facility in Pennsylvania, as the producer of an award-winning radio show for the University of Massachusetts, and writer for Southern Exposure magazine, she found her inspiration in San Francisco, where in 1978, she watched a woman dancing in front of a band. “She started pointing to people, and when she turned and pointed to me, it seemed to me that she was saying, ‘Do it today, because today is all you have.'”

Three years later, Essence magazine published her first short story, “Passing the Word.” But it took another ten years before she would write and publish her first novel, in which she would pioneer by creating Blanche White, the first Black female series sleuth in mainstream American fiction.

Literary Pioneer Barbara Neely late in life. Created First Black Woman Sleuth

Barbara Neely (1941-2020) said, “I started writing and publishing short stories and then started writing a novel that is now buried somewhere in the middle of my basement…In the middle of that novel I started playing around with this character Blanche and thought I’d like to write something about race and class that was funny, but for a good part of the book I was just doing it for my own amusement. Then I got a letter from an editor and an agent both asking me if I was working on a longer work. I told them about the other novel which I thought was going to be the great African American novel and at the end I sort of mentioned about this other thing I was playing around with. They both wrote me back about the other thing so the Blanche books moved to the front of the queue.”

At the age of fifty, Neely made her mark on the literary world with her debut novel and would go on to write four mystery novels featuring Blanche White, a spunky, irreverent Black amateur detective who worked as a maid. Neely said Blanche’s invisibility gave her an advantage to find clues and solve mysteries and she chose Blanche’s profession, as a domestic worker, carefully. “Invisible people see everything but are rarely seen. And who knows more than the people who empty your wastebaskets and wash your underwear?” (“All Things Considered,” NPR, March 11, 2020).

Her first novel, Blanche on the Lam (St. Martin’s Press, 1992), launched out of the publishing industry chute to great acclaim. The novel won the Agatha Award, the Anthony Award, and Macavity Award for best first novel. The Black Women’s Reading Club also awarded it the Go on Girl! Award.

Blanche on the Lam, Barbara Neely's debut mystery novel, written late in life

In the opening of Blanche on the Lam, a judge sentences Blanche to thirty days in jail for writing bad checks. While she visits the courthouse toilet, confusion ensues in the halls and Blanche escapes into the fictitious streets of Farleigh, North Carolina, where a wealthy family mistakes her for the housekeeper they’ve been expecting. She decides to stay with them and hide out from the law but soon finds herself in the middle of a murder, and a sheriff who may be extorting one of Blanche’s family members. Kirkus Reviews describes Blanche’s employer as “a Faulknerian cast of oddballs who may be trying to kill each other off to claim a southern fortune” (Feb. 4, 1992).

In the next eight years, she wrote three more Blanche White mysteries: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Blanche Cleans Up (Viking/Penguin, 1998); and Blanche Passes Go (Viking/Penguin, 2020). Her series has been translated into Czech, French, German and Japanese.

In her next three novels, where Blanche also solves mysteries, Neely addresses issues of racism among Black people and the hostility between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned African Americans, violence against women, class boundaries and sexism. Furthermore, she used her novels to question the standards of female beauty related to body size, figure, hair color and other features.

In her novel, Blanche Cleans Up, Neely gives clues to Blanche’s character, “Once in a while she’d been messed with so badly, she’d had to let her finger slip into somebody’s drink, put too much salt or hot pepper in the eggs rancheros, or add a couple of tablespoons of cat foot to the beef bourguignon.”

Writing about Neely in “Voices from the Gaps,” Erin Pirklwas and Leigh Ross said, “Neely uses Blanche not only to entertain, but also as a medium to discuss serious societal issues. In effect, Blanche is Neely’s political voice that will reach the mainstream through the genre of feminist mystery writing. She describes her character Blanche, as an ‘everyday Black woman and as an agent for social change. She is a behavioral feminist!'” (University of Minnesota, 2009).

In a 2000 interview with Ms. Magazine, Neely said, “I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects and it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write.”

Barbara Neely was born in 1941 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in a community of predominant Pennsylvania Dutch speaking residents. She was the only African American child to attend her Catholic elementary and high school. She said she “felt by turns invisible and on display.” (The Boston Globe, Obituary, March 11, 2020).

She was a nontraditional student and never earned an undergraduate degree but obtained a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971. After her graduate work, she advocated on behalf of women released from prison and for the Institute of Social Research. She was also the executive director of Women for Economic Justice. In the inner city of Philadelphia, she helped young African Americans deal with housing and gang problems. She also served as director of the YMCA, and later headed a consulting firm for nonprofits.

When Neely began writing, she said, “I didn’t know an adjective from an adverb, and I didn’t know writers who weren’t starving. If you grow up poor and Black, you know you can’t help your mother pay the mortgage by writing.

“I grew up with the idea I ought to be able to do anything I wanted to do. I was encouraged to write though it didn’t occur to me people made a living at it. But I’ve always kept a journal and in the sixties, I wrote extremely bad poetry.”

Neely didn’t take herself seriously as a writer until she was in her thirties. “…the understanding came to me that a full life would mean doing something I was absolutely in love with doing, whether it paid or not.”

Neely said she had offers to adapt her novels into films but turned them down fearing her character Blanche would be turned into “an Aunt Jemima, or someone lighter, thinner, younger, and cuter” (Fiction Writer magazine, June/July 2000).

When Neely was announced as the 2020 Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America, MWA board president Meg Gardiner described her as “a groundbreaking author, and MWA is delighted to recognize her work, in which she tackles tough social issues with an unflinching eye and a wry sense of humor.”

Neely’s reaction on learning of the award: “MWA Grand Master! I hope this doesn’t mean I have to relinquish my position as Empress Regnant of the Multiverse.”

Unfortunately, Neely died of complications from heart disease before she could accept her award. She died at a hospital in Philadelphia in 2020. She was seventy-eight.

Author’s Note:

Pauline E. Hopkins (1859-1930), an African American novelist, journalist, playwright, and historian, authored a short story, “Talma Gordon” which is often named as the first African American mystery story. The story revolves around the murder of Puritan descendant Jonathan Gordon. At trial, his blonde and blue-eyed daughter, Talma, is implicated. The townsfolk believe Talma killed her father after he discovered her mixed racial heritage. (The Colored American Magazine, Oct. 1900). 

While Neely said author Toni Morrison (1931-2019) inspired her as a writer, she credited her publishing success to bestselling African American authors Terry McMillan and Walter Mosley. McMillan’s first novel, Mama, came out in 1987 and proved to the publishing industry there was an audience for Black books. Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins detective novel appeared in 1990. She credited the interest in her debut novel to the public interest in the former two. 

In 1987, Houghton Mifflin published McMillan’s debut, Mama. But it was due to her own promotion that the first 5,000 copy print run sold out. Viking/Penguin published her second book, Disappearing Acts (1989) with a 25,000 first print run. The novel was optioned by Tri-Star Pictures as a direct-to-cable feature. Her third novel, Waiting to Exhale (1994) remained on The New York Times bestseller list for months and by 1995 sold more than three million copies. Critics credit McMillan for introducing the interior world of Black women professionals in their thirties who are successful, alone, available, and unhappy. 

Mosely’s Easy Rawlins series features an African American hard-boiled detective with descriptions of racial inequities and social injustice in Los Angeles during the 1940-60s. Mosely introduced Rawlins in his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (W.W. Norton, 1990), which won the 1991 Shamus Award for “Best First P.I. Novel.”

Before her writing career took off, Neely lived and worked in Raleigh, North Carolina for a brief time. She said she hated Raleigh and used the town as her fictitious setting of Farleigh in Blanche on the Lam.

ZJ Czupor is past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA), is current president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW), and co-chairs their annual literary awards competition. In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos, available at Amazon.

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    What a fascinating history of a super talented woman! Thanks for calling our attention to this great writer. (Always enjoy and learn from your “Mystery Minutes” here on RWW – thanks!)

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thank you Karna. I think we lost Barbara Neely far too soon. Thankfully, her writing lives on.

  2. Lisa Black

    Downloading copies now—these books sound irresistible. And it’s always inspiring (and encouraging) to hear how perseverance wins the day.

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thanks Lisa. Barbara had a special knack for juxtaposing mystery with good humor and social mores. And you’re right–perseverance is every thing.