Between 1990 and 2005, Julie Smith wrote two outstanding mystery series that were also love songs to New Orleans. One of my uncles lived in the city for nearly thirty years and loved the people of that rare and beautiful place.
In 1991, the author won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery with the publication in 1990 of NEW ORLEANS MOURNING, the book that introduces Skip Langdon, a New Orleans police officer with roots in the very special social soil of the Garden District. At six feet tall and determined to be graceless, Skip is the city’s most reluctant debutante. Her career as a homicide detective starts with a bang when she becomes involved in the investigation of the murder of the man about to be crowned Rex, the King of Mardi Gras. The next four books, THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ, JAZZ FUNERAL, NEW ORLEANS BEAT, and THE HOUSE OF BLUES all suggest one of New Orlean’s greatest draws but only one has any connection to music.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS has nothing to do with Blanche Dubois but refers to a religious congregation who champion the poor under the direction of their leader, Errol Jacomine. Skip is convinced he is a psychopath who manipulates his congregation to his own ends. CRESCENT CITY KILL has Skip working to discover the leadership behind the Jury, a vigilante group who are murdering accused criminals who got away with their crimes. Skip is certain the group is the brainchild of Errol Jacomine but their history makes it difficult for Skip to get much support from her fellow officers. In 82 DESIRE, the author introduces Talba Wallace, on one hand a computer expert working on a couple of Skip’s cases, and, on the other, the gifted poet the Baroness de Pontalba. Talba and Skip cross paths when a city councilman disappears and Talba becomes a private investigator. The last book in the Langdon series, MEAN WOMAN BLUES, brings an even deadlier Errol Jacomine back into Skip’s life. He needs to get rid of the police woman who won’t quit in order to focus on his run for public office.
LOUISIANA HOTSHOT places Talba Wallace front and center in a story that represents the other side of New Orleans life. Talba is African-American, raised by her strong and determined mother, knowing little about her father, and coming to terms with the increasingly yuppie-fied life of her brother, a very successful doctor. The author mixes age-groups, races, and financial disparities just as they are in the real city. In LOUISIANA BIGSHOT, Talba is asked by a friend to learn whether her boyfriend is cheating on her. Talba discovers that he is. When Babalu’s body is discovered, ruled death by drug overdose, Talba knows its murder and her determination to find her friend’s killer takes her out of New Orleans and into rural areas where enmity between races is still strong. LOUISIANA LAMENT finds Talba looking into the murder of a woman who lived her life according to the tastes of THE GREAT GATSBY. When Talba’s sister, an artist working on murals in the victim’s home, becomes a suspect, Talba comes to her rescue. P.I. ON A HOT TIN ROOF brings the reader back to Mardi Gras. Talba is working undercover as a maid in the home of a crooked judge. When the judge is killed, Talba keeps the job till she finds out what was really happening in a home in which the relationships are closer to Tennessee Williams than F. Scott Fitzgerald.
All of the titles in the books of both series refer to the city that is unlike any other. Neighborhoods of mansions abut neighborhoods of dire poverty. The Mississippi defines the boundaries of the Crescent City. The food is French and Spanish and Creole and wonderful and its coffee is undrinkable. The heat is unbearable and the humidity sucks away the life force. Yet the New Orleans of Skip Langdon and Talba Wallace was alive in ways that don’t exist in New York City. And in 2005, New Orleans died. The French Quarter and the Garden District were unharmed by Katrina but the rest of the city was claimed by the river. My uncle was a priest who died before the hurricane but had he been alive he would not have left the city. None of the wonderful people, black and white, in whose homes we stayed, at whose tables we sat, live in Louisiana today. They scattered and we lost touch. New Orleans was very rich and desperately poor. Some of what was destroyed looked as if it could have been blown down in 60 mile an hour winds. But New Orleans succumbed to the river. Tourists know that the New Orleans dead are not buried in the ground but in mausoleums. The city is below sea level. Standing at the bottom of a levee and looking up to see an oil tanker sailing far above the ground, is a bit like being down the rabbit hole, what is up should be down.
New Orleans is down, a place far different from the vibrant city it was in 2005. It is a place for tourists with extraordinary restaurants and elegant architecture. But it is no longer home for the people who made it alive.
Julie Smith is far too good to be overlooked. The two series are as different as Skip and Talba but it is unlikely that a reader will prefer one over the other. Both are highly enjoyable as mysteries and carry with them the bonus of a look at a city that disappeared and was forgotten in its need.