For Julie Smith, It's All About New Orleans' Secrets

"They say that New Orleans must be a great place to write mysteries because of all the crime there," says Julie Smith, the author of more than a dozen books set in the city. "But that has nothing to do with [crime] — it's all about the secrets." This piece initially aired July 15, 2008 on Morning Edition.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seven years ago today, winds gathered over the Bahamas and a new tropical storm was christened: Katrina. The storm became Hurricane Katrina and its devastation along the Gulf Coast changed the way that many Americans lived and forced many people to change the way that they think.

For a New Orleans author it's meant figuring out how to write about a city that's forever changed. And in this encore presentation of our series Crime in the City, we're in New Orleans where three years after Katrina NPR's J.J. Sutherland met writer Julie Smith.

JJ SUTHERLAND, BYLINE: There's the door. A shirtless drunk is passed out in front of it - then a bar, then another door. It doesn't look promising.

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SUTHERLAND: The stairwell is even less promising: dark, decrepit.

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INSKEEP: Then on the third floor, a door opens to a space seemingly the size of a bowling alley. An assault of color leaps off the walls, oranges, blues and greens. Pillars are painted in fantastic designs. The chandeliers are draped - no, covered - with gold Mardi Gras beads. The far wall - could be 100 feet away - is lined with books - mysteries, mostly, many of them written by the woman whose home this is, Julie Smith.

JULIE SMITH: They say that New Orleans must be a great place to write mysteries because there's so much crime there. And I always sort of have to laugh and say oh, yeah. That's just great. But, of course, that has nothing to do with it. It's all about secrets.

SUTHERLAND: Julie Smith's New Orleans is full of secrets. The most famous detective she's invented, Skip Langdon of New Orleans Police Homicide, makes a living out of exposing those secrets. Skip is a tall, large woman who feels slightly out of place in her own body and her home of New Orleans. Smith says she represents her adolescent self, although they both obviously love the city they live in, in spite of its flaws. Here she is reading from her novel, "House of Blues."

SMITH: (Reading) Yet despite crime and corruption, New Orleans remains, arguably, the most beautiful American city, the most gracious, the most charming. It is also the most eccentric. Walker Percy, one of its most revered writers, noted that here the tourist is apt to see more nuns and naked women than he ever saw before, the combination being the intriguing part.

SUTHERLAND: Smith says that everyone is welcome in New Orleans, as long as they're not boring. On a hot, sticky day in July, Smith sits her hat on her head and ventures out into the city she loves and the secrets it hides, and how those secrets are inevitably revealed in a place where everyone seems to know everyone.

SMITH: It is a city and a village at the same time. It's like there are only half-a-dozen people living here. Nobody has any secrets from anybody - although they do. It's just that eventually, everybody finds them out.

SUTHERLAND: The drive uptown isn't long, but it is a world away. Graceful mansions, looking as if they're showing off to each other, line the streets of the Garden District. It was here that the Americans who came to this city hundreds of years ago built to impress the French locals. Didn't work, but their vanity has left a beautiful stain on the land.

Smith walks up to one house which is in every guide book. It is a sonnet written in balconies and iron lace. Surrounding its gardens is a fence, a fence made to look like corn stalks, leaves wrapping their way up - the finials bunches of metal-ripe corn that look almost good enough to eat. Julie Smith studies the mansion, which in one of her novels housed a large, Southern gothic family - a corrupt judge and, of course, a murderer.

SMITH: Look how huge it is. Isn't that beautiful? But you can imagine lots of old family secrets occurring there, can't you? All kinds of stuff.

SUTHERLAND: Only a short ferry ride away is a place very few tourists ever go: Algiers Point. It's a quiet neighborhood, says Smith, affordable houses, not much crime - a good place to raise a family. But that's not quite what she has in mind as she leads the way to the top of the levee that hulks high between the houses and the Mississippi River.

SMITH: I think it's just a divine place to dump a body, if you should need to. I hope you never need to. What do you think? Would that be a good place?

SUTHERLAND: She walks down the side of the levee to the woods, a verdant green of vines and plants.

SMITH: How about if you went on the other side of those weeds? How perfect could that be? You probably should not hang out with too many crime writers. It will really warp your sense of perspective.

SUTHERLAND: Back on the other side of the river, the sun begins to set, and Julie Smith walks back through her favorite part of the city, which she never tires of: The French Quarter.

SMITH: Sometimes you walk in the Quarter - if you lived here as long as I am - and you look around, and you think am I really living here? Do I really get to look at this all the time? Beautiful in a really funky, broken-down kind of way. Better yet, I mean, the really best part, is it's really quirky.

SUTHERLAND: At the corner of St. Phillip and Bourbon is her character Skip Langdon's favorite bar - her favorite because it's steps from her house and it has a hot bartender. It's called Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, supposedly the oldest bar in New Orleans. It's dark and perhaps a fitting place to talk about the most horrific secret of New Orleans. It came to light almost three years ago, during Hurricane Katrina, that the billions of dollars spent building levees to protect the city were for naught.

Julie Smith's last novel was published just a week before the storm hit the city. The night before the waters came, she had a reading at a local book store. She hasn't published a book since.

SMITH: I've had people say to me, I always read mysteries before I go to a city because that's how I learn what's really going on there. And I feel like that's my job, is to tell what's really going on here. And until I figure out what's really going on here, I'm not sure how to write. So it has changed and is changing me - for a while, it really immobilized me.

SUTHERLAND: It's an epical change, she says. The city has been irrevocably shaped by a devastation on a scale that is still almost impossible to grasp three years later. She speaks of the thousands of houses and hundreds of lives ended, of an almost-impossible road back for a city that feels abandoned and betrayed by its own government.

SMITH: With all that, she asks, who would want to read a book about the death of just one person, which is what a murder mystery is? When asked how Skip would have handled the storm, Smith says she would have stayed. She would have been heroic. But then, she pauses.

If I really think about it, I feel she would have gone into a depression afterward. She would've seen things that were really hard to handle, and she would've become very depressed for a period of time. But she would've got past that. She would've handled it.

SUTHERLAND: Julie Smith says she's handling it, too. She's writing again. It took her a while, but she hopes that someday she'll begin to understand her changed city enough to have Skip Langdon once again begin uncovering its secrets. J.J. Sutherland, NPR News, New Orleans.

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