NEW YORK (AP) – Award-winning mystery writer Barbara Neely, who created the first black female sleuth series in mainstream American publishing, died March 2 after a brief illness, according to her publisher, Brash Books. She was 78.
Neely is perhaps best known for her four-book Blanche White series, which had at its center a nomadic amateur detective and domestic worker who uses the invisibility inherent to her job as an advantage in pursuit of the truth.
“I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects,â€ she told Ms. Magazine in 2000, â€œand it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write.â€
Neely was named the 2020 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. In announcing the honor last year, the association described Neely as â€œa groundbreaking authorâ€ who “tackles tough social issues with an unflinching eye and a wry sense of humor.â€
The Blanche White series includes 1992’s â€œBlanche on the Lam,â€ 1994’s â€œBlanche Among the Talented Tenth,â€ 1998’s â€œBlanche Cleans Upâ€ and 2000’s â€œBlanche Passes Go.â€ They push past mystery into political and social commentary, like tackling violence against women, racism, class boundaries and sexism. â€œIf Toni Morrison wrote murder mysteries, they would probably read a bit like Barbara Neely’s,â€ the womenâ€™s general-interest website Bustle said in 2015.
Her White had an uncommon eye for detail and interpretation. Early in â€œBlanche Among the Talented Tenth,â€ White sees a magazine picture and thinks something is amiss. â€œIt wasn’t natural for a picture of black people in a public place to all be the same complexion, unless somebody wanted it that way.â€
â€œBlanche on the Lamâ€ won the Agatha Award, Anthony Award, and the Macavity Award for best first novel, as well as the Go on Girl! Award from Black Women’s Reading Club. Her series has been translated into several languages including French, Czech, German and Japanese. She was included in 2012’s â€œ100 American Crime Writersâ€ by Steven Powell.
â€œShe was an inspiration, a trailblazer and a remarkable talent and voice whose loss is deeply felt,â€ Mystery Writers of America said in a statement following her death. â€œHer talent and memory will live on forever in her wonderful books.â€
Neely was born in 1941 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. She attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s degree. She worked on behalf of women released from prison and as a radio producer. She also had positions at the Institute of Social Research and was executive director of Women for Economic Justice.
Neely published her first short story, â€œPassing the Wordâ€ in the magazine Essence in 1981. It took her more than a decade to become an established author. Her other works include â€œAmong the Talented Tenth: A Novel.â€
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits