Tag Archives: mysteries

BarbaraNeely and The Help

Laurie says:

This blog started out to be about a post BarbaraNeely wrote for the AARP at 70 about becoming 65.

It really impressed me the first time I read it, but when I read it again before writing this, I realized that while it was a good post, it  caught me because of who had written it, and what I knew was behind it.

BarbaraNeely is a life long activist who is the author of the Blanche White mysteries.  I’ve recently reread them and was once again impressed with her writing and her politics. These are very good books. I was looking on the web hoping that she had written a 5th Blanche White mystery (unfortunately not) when I found the AARP post.


Quotes below are from a Ms article by Ann Collette:

Says Neely, “I wanted to provide a perspective rarely seen in fiction, that of a poor, black domestic woman.” This she has done to the delight of mystery readers hungry for a hero of substance. Neely’s eye for the literary detail that reveals as much about the human condition as it does about murder has led some to compare Blanche to no less than Langston Hughes’s classic character, Jesse B. Semple, from his Simple stories. As writer Ntzoke Shange has been quoted as saying, “[Blanche] rivals Simple in her insight, political savvy, and humor on the ways of white folk.”

…”I see Blanche both as an everyday black woman and as an agent for change,” Neely continues. “She’s a behavioral feminist!” But, when asked if she feels women are such avid readers of mysteries because the genre offers them the “dream of justice,” Neely snaps, “Anyone looking for justice in a book needs to sign up with an organization and make it happen in the world! There’s very little justice in the Blanche books; they’re reality based.

My stuff is always about what’s going on in the black community, because that’s who Blanche is. It’s interesting to me that academic papers have been written on Blanche. But I’d like to hope, too, that women who have domestic help will, after reading a Blanche book, look at the woman vacuuming the floor and see her as a person, rather than as a function, and act accordingly.”

I’ve also been thinking about the movie The Help.  It’s about a black women and the white families they work for.  It is set in the 60s.  Here is a piece of the review by Amy Biancolli that I read in the SF Chronicle.

Good story, great characters, a setting plucked from history – and a multiracial, multigenerational ensemble cast stacked with fabulous actresses. But the thing that makes “The Help” such a rousing crowd-pleaser is its generous helping of baked goods.

“The Help” is loaded with spirited character turns, the best of them Spencer’s: that comic glare of hers is looking major stardom in the face. Other standouts include Leslie Jordan as a nutty little editor; Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s loopy, laughing mother; Jessica Chastain as a joyously low-rent ditz with a painful secret; and Cicely Tyson, appearing in flashback, as the beloved maid who raised Skeeter. Now 79, Tyson is the film’s quavering moral center, the one who doles out life lessons and – for anyone who remembers her in “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” – connects “The Help” with those germinal African American historical sagas of the 1970s.

I grew up about the time the time The Help is set in.  When 90 % of the black women in the south worked as maids and many many of them in the North. When black maids were exploited, paid little, trapped by lack of opportunity, and every middle class white family could afford “help”.  I don’t usually write about movies I don’t see, but in this case it would make me too angry so I’m making an exception.

Here’s what BarbaraNeely said about movie offers for the Blanche White books:

Neely’s had a number of movie offers, but fearing her beloved character will be turned into “an Aunt Jemima, or someone lighter,  younger, and cuter,” she has turned them all down.

And this is part of what the Association of Black Women Historians said about it in An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help.  The whole statement is well worth reading.

On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.

…Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault. The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.

So avoid The Help and read the Blanche White mysteries

Spinning a Dream that Includes Us–My Journey with Larger Than Death

Lynne Murray says:

cover for the new edition of Larger than Death

I spent a long time crafting a sentence that would introduce the heroine of my mystery series to the world. When I started reading it out loud at signings, people gasped on more than one occasion. Sadly, all these years later, I know it still shocks some people. Larger Than Death begins:

My name is Josephine Fuller and I’ve never weighed less than 200 pounds in my adult life—not counting the chip on my shoulder.

I wanted to write about a woman who was capable and self-confident, who didn’t suffer fools or put up with put downs. I consciously tried to evoke Raymond Chandler’s “I was calling on four million dollars.” opening from The Big Sleep.

Unlike Phillip Marlowe (Chandler’s detective protagonist), I wanted my heroine to respect the people she worked for, even if that respect was hard-won (on either side):

Friends sometimes call me Donna Quixote because tilting windmills is what I do for a living. How did I get started? I answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Need person of substance for special assignments: part bloodhound, part bulldog, part lone wolf. Job requires quick study, travel and communication skills. Must genuinely care about the advancement of women.”

As a matter of fact, I was feeling quite concerned about the advancement of women in general and myself in particular at the moment I read the ad. I had just landed in San Francisco for a breather and a much-needed infusion of salaried work after divorcing my husband, a world-class photographer, adventurer and philanderer.

In other words, I needed a job. Nothing permanent. After all I hadn’t stayed in one place for more than a few months for years.

One way of keeping people down is to trivialize their stories, another is to censor them from the public view except as objects of ridicule. The tremendously insightful feminist literary historian Susan Koppelman pointed this out during a recorded conversation with other authors and Pearlsong Press publisher, Peggy Elam.

[Entire conversation archived here]

Another thing Susan said that struck me was arithmetical. She asked when Larger Than Death came out. When I told her 1997, she said “Fourteen years ago.” I may be math-challenged, but I could have figured that out. Hearing her say it made me realize that for most of those years the Josephine Fuller books have been out of print.

And now they’re back.

I’m happy to say that this week an ebook edition of Larger Than Death will be published by Pearlsong Press, with a trade paperback coming out a few days later. The other three Josephine Fuller books are being reissued over the next several months.

I wrote the Josephine Fuller books with a clear agenda–to show a fat woman as the heroine of a mystery novel, doing what fat people do in real life–solving problems, falling in love, behaving heroically. I wanted life-sized characters and I worked as hard as I could to tell a good story, to be entertaining, and to write a book good enough to stand next to other mysteries.

When Josephine calls on her future employer, a multi-billionaire (rich characters need billions these days, four million dollars doesn’t impress anyone anymore), Mrs. Madrone gives her attitude and she gives it right back:

“You do seem to be a person of substance,” she remarked, looking me up and down just a shade shy of insolence.

I looked back at her in silence until enough time had passed for her to take my point.

“Mrs. Madrone, I never let size stop me and I don’t allow anyone to intimidate me. It took awhile, but I learned not to obsess about being larger than average. In my family it comes with the genes. Good health, great teeth and high IQ. You want any one of the above, you get the whole package.”

For a moment she retreated back into her shell, then she hitched her wheelchair forward and smiled for the first time since I met her. The smile made her young again and clearly she had once been a dangerous beauty. She looked as if she still had all her teeth and those brown eyes remembered pleasure.

For the first time since I’d rung the doorbell and entered that quiet mansion, I began to feel a glimmer of the spark her ad had kindled when I read it.

“How did you get such confidence?” she asked.

I told her about Nina.

My choice to write books telling stories that revolve around women and men whom society works so hard to exclude has not resulted in stunning success in the publishing industry. Those times I remind myself that every page I write spits in the teeth of powerful assumptions–wrong, but powerful nonetheless. The voice of truth crying in the wilderness is seldom associated with financial security.

This is my mission, it chose me and I chose it. No one promised me fame and fortune for doing what I love. But what I do means everything to me, so I keep doing it.

And, hey, if you want to buy one of my books, or books from the very few authors who challenge this particular stereotype, you can think of it as helping to fund the body-positive fiction revolution one page at a time–and reading a fun book too.