Suspense. Drama. Intrigue. Everybody loves a good mystery.
Barbara Neely was a woman of mystery.
Neely was one of the greatest mystery authors of our time. But because few details exist, her time in Lebanon is shrouded in mystery.
Centered around writing mystery novels and helping others, Neely led a long, productive and interesting life. And certainly everything she did and held dear to her heart was influenced by growing up in Lebanon. Neely died last year on March 2, 2020. She was 78.
Her obituary appeared in such prestigious publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times.
“I would certainly say she was fearless,” said Bryan Neely, Barbara’s younger brother by 17 years. “She was small framed, not very tall, and she didn’t take anything from anyone. You didn’t want to get on her bad side. She was the smartest person I ever met.”
“I adored her. We had an amazing relationship,” said Susie Cohen, who was Neely’s publicist and agent since 2015. “She was genuine and real. She wrote books because she loved to write books. But they were a commentary on life.”
In the year that she passed, Neely received the prestigious 2020 Grandmaster Award from the Mystery Writers of America. It was the most prestigious award of the handful Neely had earned throughout her career, most of which resulted from her writing, but some of which came from activism pursuits.
Although she also penned a number of short stories, Neely was famous for her four-book mystery series centering around the African-American character Blanche White, an amateur sleuth who was employed as a maid. Through her writing, Neely tackled such difficult societal issues as sexism, racism, violence against women and class boundaries.
“That as a feminist mystery writer it is not enough to create strong women, and that maybe the term ‘feminist mystery writer’ is being used too loosely,” Barbara Neely was once quoted as saying.
“It was social commentary on life, and politics as well,” said Cohen. “Barbara was very well-known. She received tons of awards for her mystery writing.”
“She was able to use her own experiences and her political awareness,” said Bryan Neely. “She had a very clear understanding of how things worked, through politics and economics.”
Blanche on the Lam was published in 1992, two years later, Blanche among the Talented Tenth followed. In 1998, Blanche Cleans Up was published, then in 2000, Blanche Passes Go came out. At that time, Neely was in her 50s.
Neely portrayed Blanche, a dark-skinned, heavy-set Black woman who was proud of her work of service, as charming, astute, opinionated, and curious.
“She enjoyed interaction with people and conversation,” said Bryan Neely. “She was such an inspiration. Her characters came from our mother and grandmothers. She was a feminist. She did a lot of social work.”
“The main character was an African-American domestic worker,” said Cohen. “She was domestic help. She had a keen eye. The character was proud and independent and had very keen observation skills. The books took place in the 1990s, but they’re timeless.”
Of Blanche White, Barbara Neely was once quoted as saying, ‘For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she really was her own boss, and her clients knew it. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around.”
Barbara Neely was born on Nov. 30, 1941 in Lebanon, the daughter of Ann and Bernard Neely. Neely attended a Catholic elementary school in town and graduated from Lebanon High School in the late 1950s.
At that time, the Neelys were one of a few African-American families living in Lebanon.
“I felt very isolated,” Barbara Neely told The Lebanon Daily News in 1992. “Most of the people I went to school with were quite nice to me, but you can’t be in that situation without suffering a degree of misery.”
“When Barbara would speak to me about Lebanon she would just say how special it was,” said Bryan Neely. “It was special to all of us. I would certainly believe that she had fond memories of Lebanon.
“I don’t think so (that growing up Black in Lebanon at that time was difficult for Barbara),” continued Neely. “I knew for us it wasn’t. We moved away and we’d love to visit. We always thought it was the cleanest place in the world.”
Apparently, Barbara Neely never resided in Lebanon again, after moving away in her 20s. Despite not having earned a bachelor’s degree, Neely acquired a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971.
Later, through her work in local activism, Neely founded a community-based housing program for female felons. In 1981, Neely had her first piece of fiction, a short story titled ‘Passing the Word’, published in Essence magazine.
“I think there are a handful of older folk in Lebanon who knew who Barbara was,” said Neely, a 62-year-old resident of Philadelphia. “We’ve still got family who live there. She was the best woman. Not just creative, but very kind and generous. I never saw her turn down anyone for anything.”
“She was a very private person,” said Cohen. “She didn’t discuss her private life. She had good core values. She wrote because she purely loved to write. That was the bottom line. Our goal was to keep her writing and keep it in the right hands.”
“I didn’t know an adjective from an adverb, and I didn’t know writers who were starving,” Barbara Neely said, in an interview with The Boston Globe. “If you grow up poor and black, you know you can’t help your mother pay the mortgage by writing.”
Following a brief illness, Neely died in Philadelphia, a bit suddenly.
“We were very close,” said Neely. “She wasn’t just a big sister to me, but also a mother figure. A friend. A confidante. She was quite the activist. She cared a lot for people. She was very observant and gave lots of respect. She was one of the best mystery writers ever.”
Commemorating Barbara Neely’s life is a great way for Lebanon to celebrate February as Black History Month.
Questions about this story? Suggestions for a future LebTown article? Reach our newsroom using the contact form below and we’ll do our best to get back to you.
Do you support local news?
If you believe that Lebanon County needs independent, high-quality journalism, consider joining LebTown as a member. Your support will go directly towards stories like this and you will be helping ensure that our community has a reliable news source for years to come.
Learn more about membership and join now here.