Remembering Barbara Neely, A Pioneer In Crime Fiction
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A pioneering author of crime fiction has died. Barbara Neely was one of the first black women to break into the mystery genre. She's best known for her protagonist, the sharp-eyed crime-solving housekeeper Blanche White.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Neely didn't consider herself a mystery writer at first. Her book "Blanche On The Lam," published in 1992, was originally meant to be a social commentary. But as Neely said at a Prague literary festival in 2012, she soon realized mysteries were a perfect vehicle.
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BARBARA NEELY: While people were reading the book to find out who killed who and why, they were also getting a lot of information about race, class, gender, all of the issues that I cared about.
CHANG: Her books were full of sly commentary, starting with Blanche White herself.
JOEL GOLDMAN: Here was a protagonist, an amateur sleuth who was African American, whose name, for all practical purposes, was White White. And so she was subversive in that sense but in a very both fun and telling way.
CHANG: That's Joel Goldman, the co-founder of Brash Books, Neely's publisher. And Barbara Neely chose Blanche White's profession carefully as well. She was a domestic worker, one of the, quote, "invisible people who see everything but are rarely seen." And Neely noted, who knows more than the people who empty your waste baskets and wash your underwear?
SHAPIRO: Joel Goldman says that's part of what made Barbara Neely such a trailblazer.
GOLDMAN: Barbara broke barriers for a lot of women of color who wanted to write crime fiction. Barbara showed them that they could do that.
KELLYE GARRETT: She was one of the first times where I actually saw a black woman in a mystery novel. And so, of course, I immediately gobbled up all her books.
SHAPIRO: Kellye Garrett writes the award-winning "Detective By Day" series. She credits Neely with tackling tough subjects with humor and levity.
GARRETT: Race is such a hard conversation. Class is such a hard conversation. Gender is such a hard conversation. And she was able to discuss them in a way that made it very digestible.
CHANG: Barbara Neely's writing was just one part of her social activism. She worked with inmates. She ran a women's advocacy organization. And she hosted a weekly radio show. In an interview with The Washington Post, she told a story about organizing chambermaids at a Boston hotel, domestic workers not all that different from Blanche White.
SHAPIRO: Fellow author and friend Katherine Hall Page says she'll remember Neely as a person whose deep convictions guided both her writing and her life.
KATHERINE HALL PAGE: In terms of her passion for social justice, her awareness of who we should be in this life and who she should be was probably more than almost anybody else I knew.
SHAPIRO: Barbara Neely died last week. She was 78 years old.
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