Here’s my new favorite fictional detective: Blanche White, the resourceful heroine of Barbara Neely’s 1992 novel “Blanche on the Lam.” (Many thanks to the reader who suggested Neely’s work to me last month; I learn so much from all of you.) The first in a four-book series, “Blanche on the Lam” takes place in North Carolina, where Blanche — who, despite her name, is Black — works as a housekeeper for a variety of unappreciative employers.
In its opening pages, Blanche is in trouble with the law for writing a few bad checks after several employers fail to pay her. Furious with herself and with the system, she takes advantage of a momentary disruption to slip out of custody, and quickly finds herself working for a wealthy white family at their remote summer home. There, in the manner of all good crime fiction, mysterious doings are afoot: Soon somebody’s dead, and Blanche is determined to find out what happened.
Neely, who died earlier this year, won the Agatha Award, the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award for “Blanche on the Lam,” and you see why from the earliest pages. Blanche is wise, wry and utterly no-nonsense, given to vivid observations (her high-strung new employer is “nervous as a vampire at dawn”). She carefully performs a role at work, hiding her intelligence behind a “yes, ma’am” mask; it allows her to see things, because no one thinks she’s looking.
A quick, can’t-put-it-down read, “Blanche on the Lam” is both a satisfying whodunit and a timely injection of social commentary wrapped in a familiar crime-fiction shell. “They ought to have been appreciated,” muses Blanche, of herself and her fellow Black domestic employees, “for being the wattle that held the walls together. Instead, they were expendable, interchangeable, rarely missed, hardly regarded, easily forgotten.” I can’t wait to spend more time in Blanche’s sensible shoes.
Last month I wrote about rereading Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” — and it turned out that a lot of you are fans of this book as well. I happened to stumble across a Twitter thread of recommendations for books like “The Secret History,” and quickly ordered myself a copy of M.L. Rio’s 2017 novel “If We Were Villains.” This book, my friends, is a ride; imagine the “Secret History” gang of Greek scholars as, instead, Shakespearean actors at a posh Midwestern conservatory. Initially, there are seven of them; suddenly, there are six, and main character Oliver (who narrates the novel, in flashback and 10-years-hence) must explain just what happened, with plenty of “Julius Caesar,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “King Lear” thrown in.
“If We Were Villains” has a mood quite like “The Secret History”: the wood-paneled campus buildings; the semi-incestuous group of friends whose pairings and feelings are mercurial; the mysterious, violent death; the ever-shifting ground on which the story is told. But Rio, a British author, adds an irresistible element: These young people are actors, obsessed with the language and larger-than-life emotions of Shakespeare — which get tangled up in their own personas. “You can justify anything,” Oliver tells a detective trying to sort out the truth, “if you do it poetically enough.”
More crime-fiction recommendations from readers this month, featuring detectives from around the world: Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, about a free man of color in 1830s New Orleans; Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, set in the Shanghai Police Bureau; Kate Ross’ Julian Kestrel series, set in Regency England; Iona Whishaw’s Lane Winslow series, which take place in a small town in post-World War II British Columbia; and Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series, set in a fictional town in southwest Sicily.
Finally, an update from last month: Readers had recommended Arthur Upfield’s series of mystery novels featuring the half-Aboriginal detective Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, but several mentioned that the books (a series of 29, published from 1928 to 1966) were hard to come by. Since then I’ve heard from Upfield’s publisher, who wanted all interested readers to know that all of Upfield’s books, as of early this month, are available worldwide in corrected versions, including his previously unpublished autobiography “Beyond the Mirage.” (Several of the Bony novels have been reissued over the years in pirated versions, without corrections.) For more details, see arthurupfield.com.