AMBER LOVE 15-FEB-2015 As an amateur mystery writer, I found it important to pay attention to stories that I enjoy and learn how they are constructed so that I can adopt techniques and grammar styles. I’ve begun paying much closer attention to episodes of MURDER, SHE WROTE now then watching them merely for entertainment value. I also wanted to have this critical view on the books I’ve enjoyed lately like MISS PEREGRINE’S SCHOOL FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. Since the mystery I wrote would not fall into YA and would be more suitable to the fans of cozies like Jessica Fletcher mysteries, I did the following analysis of Barbara Neely’s BLANCHE ON THE LAM. This was my first time reading Neely and I definitely would read more by her.
Before I get into it, some people might be wondering what a cozy mystery is. I covered it briefly on VODKA O’CLOCK with hardboiled writer Ande Parks. He’s more of the pulp and noir variety writer and he asked me why cozies appeal to me.
“In a nutshell, the sex and violence are not graphic in cozies the way you’d read in a gritty traditional crime fiction book. The cozies make murder funny a lot of the time. Even if the death is sad and depressing, the characters will run into silly situations. There’s often an emphasis on coffee, tea and food.” VODKA O’CLOCK episode 1443
The events of BLANCHE ON THE LAM take place in the course of one week.
In regards to crafting the main character, Blanche White, Barbara Neely does an exceptional job of making her a regular human being that’s relatable with strengths and weaknesses. Too many mysteries have protagonists with nearly paranormal abilities, whether it’s being too tough to die, perfect martial artists, or Sherlockian super human observation skills. Blanche is a basic woman, adopted mother of two kids she can’t raise because she needs to go make money, and a woman who weighs moral dilemmas like a real live person. Because Blanche is an African-American housekeeper, she has the distinction of being ignored, practically invisible at times, and she’s never quite trusted by her employers. She’s curious/nosy which gives her the information-gathering mind of a sleuth; she has escalating money troubles and keeps her emotional distance from the rich white folks to the point of even considering stealing cash from them they would never miss.
Blanche is also a unique character in that her physical appearance sets her apart from other mystery protagonists. Her color, her build, and her maid’s uniform make her different from the white female and male protagonists I’ve read in cozies and noir. It’s often mentioned that her status as a house employee gives her the secret pleasure of letting people believe she’s stupid simply because of her job and color. She lets them talk down to her because she uses whatever information they slip as part of her knowledge base about who they really are.
“Though she didn’t consider herself fat, she did admit to having big bones and hips. And breasts and forearms to match, when it came right down to it. Only her legs were on the smallish side. However, they didn’t have any trouble carrying her as fast and as far as she wanted to go.” ~ BLANCHE ON THE LAM by Barbara Neely
Blanche has dreams just like any other person. Even though being a maid and housekeeper is far from glamorous, she chose it over something like factory work, which she tried in the past. She dreams of having enough money to move to an exotic spot in the Caribbean and opening her own guesthouse for hardworking women like herself. “Reasonably priced with good food, no men or children allowed.” These are the sorts of dreams an average American would have. In fact, lots of us were tweeting about it during last week’s $450 million Powerball frenzy.
Blanche’s weakness is definitely human connections. She loves her family even when she feels like her mother will never see eye to eye with her. She loves the kids that came into her care. She has a best friend, Ardell. And, try as she might, Blanche develops the “Darkies’ Disease” with Mumfield, growing attached to the youngest of the white family who has a form of Down’s Syndrome. Her empathy for other people could easily give someone an opening to try and exploit her.
In her own town, she can’t find any black people to employ her which is where she’d be more comfortable. Her role in the pyramid of perceived importance is something that other people try to take advantage of. Blanche’s strong will and bulldog attitude keep her from being anybody’s abused servant.
Neely describes Blanche and Mumsfield as invisibles because no one takes them seriously or pays them much mind. It’s a connection to him that takes her the entire book to embrace. For a couple brief moments, when Neely describes Blanche’s sixth sense that Mumsfield quietly entered a room before she even sees him, it comes off ever-so slightly supernatural, but Neely maintains how grounded and real Blanche is. It may be spooky when things like that happen, but they do happen in the real world. You might find yourself thinking of someone when you get a message from them, for example. That’s how Blanche and Mumsfield were connected throughout the story.
Blanche talks to Mumsfield in a way that isn’t condescending. If she’s too busy, she tells him to save their story for later. This way Blanche doesn’t simply nod and smile to him like other people when they aren’t even listening. It’s a rule established in how they can communicate and Neely works it through beautifully.
Her adopted children are a strength to her character and an obstacle. Blanche did not want children. The kids were her sister’s who died. She had to support them and care for them and, at times, leave them which was hard since she did end up seeing herself as their mother. She obviously could be using her paycheck on herself if not for inheriting the children. She also would not have the guilt of moving from town to town for better jobs, but she leaves them with her mother in a stable environment and sends money back.
Her main obstacle isn’t related to character, but rather to circumstance. Blanche is hard up for cash. She works her ass off making elaborate meals from scratch that sometimes go uneaten. There’s also a reference to Blanche’s apartment having burned down in the past adding to the character’s history of baggage and misfortune.
Blanche can’t go to the police for several reasons: the first, is that she ran out on serving 30 days for bad checks, so that’s why the title is “on the lam.” Also, she has no reason to believe in her rights being taken seriously in racist America. Blanche’s actions are always in consideration of racial tension, like when she is walking down a sidewalk, she has to make sure not to run because a black person running is suspicious.
There’s also the rules of the house that are dictated. Blanche’s quarters are barely humane in the beautiful country cottage of the wealthy family. She is not to bring meals to the old woman on the second floor or allowed to go in to see her for any reason unless instructed to do so. She’s told to stay out of the perfectly good guest room next to old Aunt Emmeline.
Because of Blanche’s relationship with Mumsfield, she has the difficult task of explaining unfortunate things to him, such as why loved ones sometimes do bad things and that when that happens, some people pretend the bad things never happened. She also has to explain all the disappointing conclusions to him about his family members.
Neely doesn’t hold back when describing a room or a scene. She lets her sentences include lists which doesn’t allow the reader to use their own imagination much, but it’s better to have too much than too little to go on.
“The inside of the house was cozier than the house in town: deep sofas and big old rattan chairs with rose chintz covers and cushion, warn leather hassocks, dark green woven rugs, and large photographs of people in old-fashioned dress on the whitewashed walls.” ~ BLANCHE ON THE LAM by Barbara Neely
Neely also describes things that are missing from rooms so that you can see how Blanche’s quarters or the gardener’s house are different from the employer’s house.
SENTENCE STRUCTURE/WRITING TECHNIQUE
Neely doesn’t completely avoid adverbs as I’ve heard other well-seasoned authors advise. She doesn’t smother the reader with them either, so they exist, but sparingly.
She also doesn’t force dialog tags of any kind. I generally adhere to the methods of people like Joe Lansdale and Stephen King who I’ve heard in interviews state that “said” is the absolutely only thing you need to explain who is delivering dialog. They say to avoid “asked, yelled, mumbled, whispered” or anything else and use a surrounding sentence to describe how the words are spoken. However, since drafting and revising my own mystery, I’ve scoured several advice columns and have noticed the currently acceptable trend: no tag at all. No “said.” No nothing. Use the surrounding sentences to tell the reader who it is.
“Us, Blanch. You and me. Now I go to buy gas.” He gave her his scrunched-together smile and bounced out the back door. ~ BLANCHE ON THE LAM by Barbara Neely
You can’t tell who the “he” is, but you know it’s the male character who is speaking to Blanche. At this point, with the rest of the page, you know it’s Mumsfield without any doubt.
Neely will sometimes embellish with “he giggled” as a tag or something that is descriptive of the line, but for the most part, she addresses their identities in other ways.
Inner dialog was handled by Neely in a way I hadn’t seen before, or at least, had never noticed. I put thoughts in quotations just like dialog and then use leading sentences to make it known that the words are unspoken. Here’s where I think Neely made it harder on the reader because she switches to Blanche’s inner dialog within the confines of an existing paragraph so the perspective changes from outside observer to omniscient.
“She sifted flour and baking powder into a bowl. Maybe he wasn’t as full of himself as his preening as Nate made him seem. Of course, he was always on his good behavior with Grace. It’s her aunt that’s got the money, she mumbled aloud. She turned to the door as she spoke. Mumsfield was already smiling when he opened the door.” ~ BLANCHE ON THE LAM by Barbara Neely
The sentence, “It’s her aunt that’s got the money,” is a mumble so it’s not really directed to anyone else but Blanche herself, yet it’s more than an unspoken thought and still treated the same way within the same paragraph as the rest. This happens on occasion and I think the reading experience would benefit from Blanche’s inner dialog and untargeted speech being in quotes.
Instead of Neely writing the sentence, “This is one of the ways he’s different,” to explain to the reader that there’s something special about Mumsfield, she doesn’t use quotes and keeps it within a larger paragraph, adding, “, Blanche thought.” The comma and Blanche thought participle are part of Neely’s style that I found clunky. It happened to be the only part I didn’t like and I eventually got used to it.
I have a couple of friends reading through the rough draft of my mystery novel. One of them is proofreading and giving me helpful edits; the other is looking at it from a bigger picture perspective to see how it comes off as a reading experience. Both have said that I don’t have the murder or enough other action in the first several chapters of the story. Of course I’m defensive and disagree. I happen to love chapter one and find it a non-threatening, kind of foreshadowing element that the heroine’s new vocation is not all honky dory. That criticism, constructive as it is, is why I wanted to analyze a mystery from someone who has found an agent, a publisher, fans and success.
Neely doesn’t even mention any dead body mystery at all until 42% of the way into the book. Before BLANCHE ON THE LAM, I read Susan Wittig Albert’s HOLLY BLUES cozy (a China Bayles mystery), and it didn’t have a body until 45% through the book. My big picture friend said he doesn’t know cozies at all and doesn’t have any guess about what the readers expect. I’m hardly a scholar, but of all the books I’ve read, cozies are definitely the highest quantity.
At this 42% mark, the body which Neely revealed isn’t even the primary murder. It’s a very old death which isn’t explored further. A few pages after, is another past death which people believed to be accidental although some had their suspicions. That’s at the 43% mark.
At the 81% mark, Mumsfield says something to Blanche that gives the reader a eureka moment. It’s a short bit of dialog that encourages Blanche to dig further into this messed up family business. It’s the first noticeable plot twist and a strong lead on one of the murders that only needs confirmation.
The first confirmed murder resolution comes in at the 85% mark. The second one clocks in shortly after at the 86% mark. That’s the point where Blanche is confronting the murderer. The large section that follows gives the villain the chance to have a crazy killer monologue that explains how the murders were done and who knew about them. It’s where the reader sees the callousness of the character and the decline into psychopathy and then sliding right into sociopath territory. Another confession comes out at 89% and yet another confession at 90%.
The conclusion of where Blanche’s relationship with Mumsfield stands ends the story nicely at the 98% mark. The reader could have gotten attached to them together or see this wrap up as a stepping stone in their lives.