By Charise Frazier, Madame Noire
Barbara Neely, an award-winning writer best known for her groundbreaking mystery series based on a Black woman sleuth named Blanche White, died earlier on March 2 after an unspecified illness according to her publisher Brash Books. She was 78-years-old.
We are deeply saddened to share the news that Barbara Neely passed away earlier this week. She was recently named the 2020 Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America & is best known as author of the groundbreaking Blanche White mystery series, which we are honored to publish. pic.twitter.com/tqwQkcYUbR
— Brash Books (@BrashBooks) March 8, 2020
Neely’s series followed the investigative work of a fictional character named Blanche White, a Black woman who used her invisibility as a domestic worker to delve into her craft. The Blanche White series includes four books, 1992’s “Blanche on the Lam,” 1994’s “Blanche Among the Talented Tenth,” 1998’s “Blanche Cleans Up” and 2000’s “Blanche Passes Go.” With the series Neely was able to intercede hard truths regarding racism, class, colorism and domestic violence, issues central and crucial to Black women.
“I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects,” Neely told Ms. Magazine in 2000, “and it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write.”
“As an old organizer, you tell people what you want them to know, tell them again, and then tell them you’ve told them,” she once said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Neely was born in 1941 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where she found herself to be the only Black student throughout her grade school years in the primarily German influenced community. She attended the University of Pittsburgh for undergrad, also completing her master’s in Urban and Regional Planning at the institution.
Her writings interconnected with her career as a criminal justice advocate, pulling from her experience as the designer and director of a community-based corrections facility in Pennsylvania. Neely also served as the director of Women for Economic Justice, a women’s advocacy organization based in Boston and also produced award-winning programming at the University of Massachusetts’ radio station.
But her life took a turn after she published her first short story, “Passing the Word,” inEssence magazinein 1981. More than 10 years later, she published her first book out of the Blanche White series which won the 1992 Agatha Award for Best First Novel, the 1993 Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and the 1993 Macavity Award for Best First Novel. Prior to her death she was named the 2020 Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America. Her work was not only regulated to novels, Neely also wrote essays, short stories and plays.
“She was an inspiration, a trailblazer and a remarkable talent and voice whose loss is deeply felt,” Mystery Writers of America said in a statement following her death. “Her talent and memory will live on forever in her wonderful books.”
Several of Neely’s supporters and shared their grief on social media.
This is heartbreaking. I love her work deeply. Thank you #barbaraneely. RIH https://t.co/V3zgxEYQCi
— natasha williams (@NWMISSEBAA) March 9, 2020
RIP to the gifted Barbara Neely, author of the Blanche White books. BLANCHE ON THE LAM was published in 1992, and I still remember all these years later reading this ground breaking book for the first time. This year she was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. pic.twitter.com/u6zScIzlNv
— Aunt Agatha's (@AgnewRobin) March 8, 2020
I mourn the passing of Barbara Neely, who revolutionized our perception of race and class in her Blanche White mysteries. She was to be this year's MWA Grand Master.
— ((Sara Paretsky)) (@SaraParetsky) March 9, 2020
This article originally appeared in Madame Noire.