The other day I was thinking about what a mystery story would be like if the main character wasn’t an investigator, or an ex-cop, or a rich person with a penchant for trouble. What would a story be like, I wondered, if someone found themselves in it, so to speak? And then along comes Blanche Cleans Up to answer my question.
Blanche White has been working as a household domestic and has recently moved with her sister’s two children up to Boston from South Carolina. As a favor to a cousin, she agrees to temporarily replace Miz Inez as the housekeeper-cook for the wealthy Brindles so Miz Inez can vacation with Cousin Charlotte.
Although there are two Blanche books before this one, here is where Neely really hits her mystery stride. It’s more complicated than prior mysteries, although parts are perhaps a little passé, coming from the perspective of 1998. Maybe not. But still, it is good. It reads quickly and is moderately suspenseful.
“Blanche always called her employers ma’am and sir to their faces. It put just the right amount of distance between them and her and was good cover when she couldn’t remember their names.”
What’s really the most enjoyable here is Blanche. Her reflections on the social dynamics at the house of her temporary employers’, her efforts to provide a safe environment for her kids, her participation and support of black women and the larger Black community; as she goes about these things, the reader experiences them with her, and occasionally even learn with her. There’s quite a diversity of experiences and thoughts, and if there’s a social message that may seem a little heavily applied at times, it doesn’t last long, or it is balanced out with humor or interesting characters.
I recognize’s Blanche’s tendency to ‘poke the bear,’ as we used to call it, in one of her interactions with another worker at the Brindle’s:
“‘I don’t get it,’ Blanche said. ‘You Christians say god made everything and everybody, which has gotta include lesbians. But then you say lesbians are ungodly. Seems to me that you, your pastor, or your God is very confused, honey.’
Carrie looked at her as though Blanche had just grown horns. ‘I’m gonna put you in my prayers.’ She hurried away to the laundry room and closed the door firmly behind her. Blanche could hear her shrieking some hymn about being delivered from the heathen. It was so tuneless and off-key, Blanche suspect Carrie had made it up for her benefit.”
I can’t help but chuckle a little at her obstinacy. But she keeps working at building a relationship as well as opening Carrie’s mind to positive acquaintance-ship, if nothing else.
She ends up getting a resolution to the various puzzles she encounters not because she’s determined necessarily to solve a mystery, but because she wants to help a friend, or to make things right. A quick read with a lot of broad insight into what life might be like for an empowered woman of color. Recommended.