REVIEW: BLANCHE AND THE TALENTED TENTH
The second, ground-breaking mystery featuring African-American maid and amateur sleuth Blanche White by Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Award winning Author Barbara Neely
When Blanche White moved north to Boston, she believed it would be a better place to raise her kids, especially after she got them into an elite private school. But now her children are becoming elitist and judgmental, acquiring more attitude than education. So when she and her kids are invited to Amber Cove, an exclusive resort in Maine for wealthy blacks, Blanche jumps at the chance to see how the other half lives and maybe stop her kids turning into people she doesn’t want to know. When one of the guests kills himself, and another is electrocuted in her bathtub, Blanche becomes an accidental detective once again, using her sharp wit and keen social insight to peel back some disturbing color and class distinctions within the black community that may have driven someone to murder.
AMBER LOVE 26-JAN-2017 Content like reviews are supported by donors at my tip jar on Patreon.com/amberunmasked. You can also buy my books and share the links.
When I reviewed the first Blanche White book by Barbara Neely, I took a different approach. I dissected and analyzed it to precisely nail down the story structure elements. It was more of a case study. For book two, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, I’d like to highlight the social issues that gave me a better understanding of the color bias within the black community.
Neely is always direct about how dark Blanche White is and it being the reason she gave her such an ironic name. She refers to Blanche as “eggplant dark” so it’s important to understand the situation book two presents. Blanche’s adopted daughter Taifa is growing up fast and now she’s concerned about being too dark since the other kids of color in her school are light. Blanche takes a much needed vacation to Maine’s exclusive black resort Amber Cove. However, the resort was founded and considered the mainstay of the “light-bright” and wealthy. She is stared at by other African-Americans who give her plenty of side-eye glances just like when she was the only black child on a playground.
Neely has Blanche befriend another darker though much younger woman, Tina, who dares to sport dreads. She’s a contrast to the crone, Dr. Mattie Harris, an academic and famous writer of black feminism, widowed from a famous white man. The Amber Cove guests are divided into Insiders and Outsiders; the Outsiders are tourists. The Insiders have to be related to someone who was there from the beginning of the community.
Mattie said: “I’m not really an Insider. I see you’ve been given the distinctions. My people were genteel poor clerics. Educated, but poor. They couldn’t have bought Insider status here at a quarter of the price. Getting in because your famous white husband buys you in is good enough, but not as good as being born among the people who’ve traditionally owned cottages here, even if you’re light-skinned.”
Another difficult subject Neely brings into this story is suicide. Mattie’s doting godson Hank has a past filled with several attempts to take his own life. Blanche has to explain suicide to her kids and this passage made me wonder if it was all character or if this is how Neely really feels about the illness:
“Sometimes…sometimes a person can get so sad it makes them sick, real sick, so that they always got heartache that makes even the most beautiful day look bad. And even though they may have friends and people who love them, those people can’t cheer them up,”
— Up to this point, I’m fine with her description as how to talk to children about it, but Blanche’s sentence continued [under accordion]:
“because it’s a kind of sickness a person has to cure themselves and sometimes they don’t think they can.”
I found that particularly insulting. I read Neely’s books to learn about racial issues and enjoy entertaining mysteries, but it seems either she or her character Blanche need to learn about mental illness.
Blanche’s spirituality was barely touched upon in book one, so I was thrilled to see that she has a new appreciation for ancestor worship. It goes along well with the sixth sense that was sometimes mentioned — how Blanche can sense things from buildings which is honed observation from cleaning so many different kinds of places.
The new call to spirit and Mother Water makes Blanche want to stay celibate for a while so she can heal her troubled heart. She still doesn’t find any need for marriage. Meeting the tall, light Stu at Amber Cove gave her reason to doubt her decision. As a reader, from the very introduction of a new love interest for Blanche, my hair stood on end trying to figure out if he was a decent and honorable pharmacist or a total horny jackass.
I have so many passages of this book highlighted, but my favorite is probably this one by Blanche talking to Tina:
“Today’s national movements, women’s and blacks’, seem more interested in being players in the white male club than challenging the white male patriarchy.”
It makes me wonder what Blanche White would do if she saw the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017 or last night’s impromptu protests for immigration rights in NY’s Washington Square Park and Boston where Blanche lives.
This story plays out like a soap opera. There are couples mixed of dark and light or black and white. Among them, there’s a gossip queen who ends up electrocuted in her bathtub. Mattie refuses to believe that the clues pointing to her godson as a killer are true. Blanche and Mattie find the box containing all the dirt Faith the gossip hermit had on people.
There ends up being four mysterious deaths for Blanche to solve and I couldn’t figure out any of them until she did. There was enough to second guess Mattie’s motivations and all the people of Amber Cove.
“There’s more than one way to be poor, more than one kind of education, and a whole lot of ways to be ignorant.” Blanche White, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth