Cover image for Louisiana bigshot
Louisiana bigshot
Smith, Julie, 1944-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Forge, 2002.
Physical Description:
303 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
Format :


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A Talba Wallis Novel By night the glamorous Baroness de Pontalba, by day New Orleans' hippest P.I., Talba Wallis is dumbfounded when she can't do a simple background check on an old friend--Babalu Maya just doesn't seem to exist on paper. Four days later, she doesn't exist at all. As Talba threads her way backward through Babalu's short, difficult life, she finds an intricate pattern of violence and fear, and a shadowy Mr. Big with homicidal intent. Talba butts right into everybody's business in Clayton, Louisiana, a small town with a big, ugly secret, where being black, mouthy, and smart are the three qualities most likely to get her killed. As she uncovers dark truths, events and people spiral into nasty motion in a story that has more twists and turns than the Mississippi River.

Author Notes

Mystery author Julie Smith was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1944. She graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in journalism. After graduation, she moved to New Orleans and wrote features for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. After a year, she moved to San Francisco and got a job at the San Francisco Chronicle. Fourteen years later, she left to form a freelance writing firm called Invisible Ink with two other women. In 1982, her first novel, Death Turns a Trick, was published. Since becoming a full-time author, she has written over twenty novels including the ones in the Rebecca Schwartz Mystery series, the Paul McDonald Mystery series, the Skip Langdon Mystery series, and the Talba Wallis series. Her novel, New Orleans Mourning, won the 1991 Edgar Allen Poe Award for best novel.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Smith has perfect pitch. She can echo the dizzying obfuscations of petty bureaucrats, the rising-threat noises of cops, and the back-and-forth lazy lobbing of friendship. It's great to hear her again, following her African American private eye Talba Wallis around from New Orleans to tiny Clayton, Louisiana, as she confronts and cajoles information on her latest case. Wallis' new friend asks her to run a background check on her fiance, whom she suspects of cheating on her. Private-eye protocol calls for running a check on the client first. This client, though, comes up empty. The cheating boyfriend comes around two days later, with the news that Wallis' friend has died from an apparent heroin overdose. The trail leads to Clayton, the friend's home, an almost entirely white community, whose members seem to regard the dead woman as a sinner and traitor. Smith, who won an Edgar for New Orleans Mourning (1990), gives us a multilayered mystery and a quirky, believable heroine. --Connie Fletcher

Publisher's Weekly Review

In her second outing (after 2001's well-received Louisiana Hotshot) from Edgar-winner Smith, Talba Wallis, whose day job as a newly licensed PI never interferes with her nighttime gig as the performance poet called the Baroness de Pontalba, finds herself entangled in the dirty laundry of white folks' family secrets when she sets out to prove that her friend Babalu's death was murder, not suicide and not a drug overdose. In the end, the snarl of old family skeletons, corrupt politicians and racial ugliness becomes too serpentine for its own good, and the solution to the murder is vaguely unsatisfying. Far more appealing are the strongly drawn characters. The interplay between the young black woman and her much older white boss, a man who admires her brain and her fearlessness but would never let on, is warm and respectful; Smith nicely plays it against the very real and very dangerous racial divide that Talba encounters when she investigates her friend's smalltown past. The fiercely independent Talba still lives with her no-nonsense mama, Miz Clara, who makes the best fried chicken known to man and thinks Talba's way of dressing for poetry readings makes her look like "some fool who's been to one too many rummage sales." But Talba, as her sweet schoolteacher boyfriend never fails to remind her, is every inch a baroness. She's also a fine poet, and one of the delights of the book is that Smith lets us peek inside the mind and heart of a poet at work, revealing the process as well as the result. (Aug. 23) FYI: Smith is the author of three other mystery series, the best known featuring police detective Skip Landon. The first Landon title, New Orleans Mourning, won the best novel Edgar in 1991. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In her second adventure after Louisiana Hotshot, African American P.I. Talba Wallis, otherwise known in New Orleans poetry circles as the Baroness de Pontalba, keeps tabs on the fianc of her masseuse friend Babalu Maya. She quickly proves his infidelity but cannot understand Babalu's subsequent suspicious suicide-by-overdose. The fiance hires her to investigate, which she does with zeal, wit, and aplomb. Talba finds that beneath Babalu's quirky style, invented name, and upper-crust family lies a history of abuse that may have begun when she was nearly scalped in high school. Unusual subject matter, then, set off by an appealing but streetwise heroine makes this a strongly recommended choice for most mystery collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Under normal circumstances, getting a Louisiana PI license is so routine as to be boring--you take a course, you pass a test, and you pay your money. Usually, there's only one slight catch--you can't be issued a license unless you're already hired. But Talba Wallis seemed to have found another one. She was already hired, and she'd made ninety-seven on the test. For nearly five months she'd worked as an apprentice for Mr. Eddie Valentino of E. V. Anthony Investigations. And still, she almost didn't get her license. You have to submit a few little things with your application-a copy of your driver's license, five-by-seven-inch photo, and fingerprints. For the last the State Board of Private Investigator Examiners provides official FBI cards. All you have to do is take them to law enforcement agency that offers a fingerprinting service and plunk down a few small bucks. "Piece o'cake," Eddie said. "Take ya ten minutes, max." So one gorgeous September day on her lunch hour, Talba drove out to 715 South Broad Street, headquarters of the New Orleans Police Department. A good thing it's close , she thought. She had a client coming in at one, and at three, she had to resume her surveillance of a suspected errant wife. The woman was a college professor whose last class was over then, and Talba was in a hurry to wrap up the case. Eddie's jokes about "extracurricular activities" were getting tedious. Nonetheless, she was in a great mood. She sailed in feeling buoyant and powerful. Finally, she was getting the damned license. She liked the job a lot. A whole lot. And a funny thing, it was a great way to make friends. It wasn't something anyone ever thought about on career day at school, but once you said the words private investigator it was amazing how many people blurted, "I'd love to do that!" They wouldn't, of course. For one thing, there was the tedium--of records searches, surveillance, online research, court appearances, intake interviews, half a dozen other things. For another, most people thought divorce cases were sleazy, and these were a good chunk of the work. Actually, Talba liked them--she liked catching scumbags (of either sex) and, though originally hired for her computer skills, she'd turned out to be good at it. It wasn't a job for everybody, but despite the fact that she was such a computer wiz she impressed even herself, a sensitive and talented poet (in her opinion), and a baroness(she'd decided), it suited her. So she was in an excellent mood as she entered the building. A female functionary sporting two-inch purple nails with a tiny picture on each of them pointed to a door on the right. No stairs, no elevator. Couldn't be more convenient. Talba stepped through to a nearly dark, closet-sized anteroom opening onto a large, light, comfortable-looking room, which was populated by two people--an enormous seated woman in a black dress and a smallish, wiry-looking man in uniform. Both were and African-American, as was Talba herself. The well-padded woman had a motherly look to her. Pencil in hand, she was poring over something in which she seemed to have a deep and abiding interest. She may or not have heard Talba enter, but either way, she didn't look up. The man was talking on the phone. Talba stood politely for a few minutes, curious as to what was so important the woman couldn't take time out to serve a customer. And finally, she got tired of it. "Excuse me," she said. The woman looked at her over nondescript glasses that couldn't hide a pair of bulging eyes. A thyroid thing Talba thought, figuring it was causing the weight problem. "I'm here to get fingerprinted." "Whatcha need prints for?" "I'm applying for my PI license." "That'll cost ya thirty dollars. You can get it done for fifteen dollars at the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office." "Here's fine. I don't mind the charge." The woman raised an eyebrow, as if she disapproved of spendthrifts. "Ya filled out ya cards?" "No, do I need to?" "Use black ink and be sure ya print," In the anteroom, there was an and table she could probably write on but not enough light to see. "May I come in to fill them out?" There were at least five empty desks. "This room's part of the police department." The woman went back to her paperwork, leaving Talba rummaging for a pen and hoping if she found one, it would be black. She ended up going outside to fill out the card. When she returned the large woman seemed almost cordial. "Come on in," she said, with a near-smile, and Talba opened the dutch door separating the spaces. The other woman came forward to sit at the front desk. "Let me have the cards and ya driver's license." The instructions on the application had been explicit--the fingerprinter must see the applicant's license. The woman studied the documents for almost five minutes before she finally raised her head, face outraged, suddenly a different person. "You got different names on these things!" It was true. Talba's birth name was an embarrassment to all concerned-to herself, to Miz Clara, and the human race in general. A white obstetrics who thought he was funny had named her. However the state required the same name on your driver's license that appeared on your birth certificate. "Talba" was her own name, the name she'd given herself and always used except when performing her poems, at which times she used its ceremonial form, "the Baroness de Pontalba." She pointed out where she'd written her official name on the FBI card, in the space asking for aliases and AKAs. "I'd prefer to use 'Talba' on my license" she said. "You can't do that. Ya name's Urethra." It took all Talba' strength not to wince. Damn! Something was severely off here. The license was issued by a state board--what right did a city functionary have even to express an opinion on the subject? But the fat lady wasn't the sort you argued with. Talba said, "The board might agree, I don't know. can't know till I apply." The woman wasn't listening. She'd begun paging through a copy of the yellow Pages, holding Talba's license and FBI cards tightly in the hand that also held the book. "There's no Eddie Valentino in here." The card had asked for her employer's name and address. "I work for E. V. Anthony Investigations. Eddie's the 'E. V.' part" She pointed out the agency ad. "I'm gon' call the state board." The woman got up and waddled to a glass cubicle in the back of the room. Talba heard her dial and say, "This is Sergeant Rouselle." This woman was a cop? That was a shocker. She wasn't in uniform and she wore no badge. Besides that, she seemed not to have either the personality or the build for it. Minor bureaurcrat was the way Talba'd pegged her. The sort who got off on running people's days. Cop or no, she suddenly realized, she was about to become snarled in a bureaucratic snafu that was going to make her miss her one o'clock. She walked back to the cubicle and held out her hand. "Sgt. Rouselle, I think I'll go over to Jefferson Parish, after all. May I have my license, please?" The sergeant turned on her, shouting, bulging eyes blazing behind dirty lenses. "You're going to jail if you snatch this out my hand!" Tabla backed away, "I wasn't going to--" The other officer got off the phone quick and strode over to the cubicle, patting air as if to a calm a child. "Now, ma'am, just calm down. Just take it easy now." "But I didn't…look, all I want to do is go. I'm on my lunch hour." "I get the feeling you're worried you're going to get your boss in trouble. This is nothing to do with you and nothing to do with him." What language was he speaking? Who cared? "Look, Officer, I'm on a schedule." "Just take it easy and nobody's going to get in any trouble." It suddenly got through to Tabla exactly what the situation was: He was telling her the sergeant really could throw her in jail if she wanted to. All she'd have to do was say Talba assaulted her to get her license; or had pot breath; or anything she wanted to. In a word, she was trapped. She sat and streamed. After about twenty minutes, Officer Rouselle waddled on out. "All right. You want to get fingerprinted?" Talba looked at her watch, considering. There was still time to make her one o'clock--barely--if the show could just get on the road. "Can we do it now?" "Now? " the sergeant shouted. "Can we do it now ? You don't respect my title or my position, do you? I need a little more respect out of you, missy. Hear me: you must use the same name on these cards as is on your driver's license.…" Talba was desperate to scream at the woman: It's not up to you, Fat Stuff! It's up to the state board . But that was definitely going to get her arrested. It developed the sergeant could read her mind. She just stared, heaving a huge sigh. And then, still clutching Talba's license, she picked up the phone. "Captain Regilio, please. Well, then, the lieutenant." Talba's heart thumped in a way it hadn't since she'd gotten in a shootout the previous spring. It's the adrenaline , she realized. Damn! This petty bureaucrat has me scared to death . That pissed her off almost more than the rest of it. Then there was the problem of how the hell she was going to explain to Eddie (or her mother or even her boyfriend) that she was innocent--whatever the charge. The fact was, she did have a mouth on her. The irony was, for once she was keeping it shut. Eventually, two uniformed male officers and one white woman in shorts arrived to receive another ten minutes of Sgt. Rouselle's rants. "I called y'all in because this woman's trying to provoke me." Take it , Talba told herself. Keep your mouth shut or you're going to jail . Her teeth hurt from gritting them. Finally one of the other officers gently pried the license from Sgt. Rouselle's grasp and handed it back to Talba, who once again held out her hand. "May I have my fingerprint cards?" "I'm gon' confiscate those. They're not your property, they're the FBI's." Oh, yeah? So now you're the FBI ? She looked beseechingly at the others, but they only stared back poker-faced. Well, who cared? At least she was legal to drive back to the office. She never had to breathe a word. She'd just go tomorrow to Jefferson Parish and no one would be the wiser. She arrived back at the office at five after one. Her client was sitting in the reception room, and Eileen Fisher, Eddie's office manager, looked way too nervous for comfort. "That Ms. Wallis?" Eddie hollered. "Ms. Wallis, could you come in here a minute? I just had a phone call from the state board. What's this about you gettin' arrested?" It was a hell of a way to begin a career. But Eddie had been gentle with her. "I'm gon' let you off this time, Ms. Wallis. So long as you learned somethin' from this experience." "If you mean I'm supposed to suck up to some powerhungry harpie out of Kafka's worst nightmares…" "I don't mean that a'tall, Ms. Wallis. I mean I hope ya learned to never, ever, for any reason do anything in any New Orleans city office you can do somewhere else. I mean that, now. Save us both a lot of time, lot of headache." She was about to say, Yes sir, she sure wouldn't and leave clicking her heels together, when he held up a finger. "And one more thing if you don't mind--could ya make some kinda effort not to be more trouble than ya worth?" That was a month ago. She had her license now--in the name of Talba Wallis, thank you very much. But the whole gig looked to be falling apart again. * * * She could barely hear the words through the fuzz in her brain: " Miss, are you all right ?" The speaker was the other driver, a white man in his forties. Hell, no, she wasn't all right. Four days of surveillance and she finally had the pond scum in the Cadillac with the paramour, feet away from her camera lens. Inches from delicious triumph. But now nothing. Nothing but a hurting back, a totaled car, maybe a missed paycheck. Maybe even the ax--after that little episode with Sgt. Rouselle, Eddie's patience was pretty thin. And her mama, Miz Clara, did so love having her baby daughter employed! Even as a PI. Time was when Miz Clara thought there were only three suitable jobs for a Wallis child--doctor of medicine, speaker of the house, and first African-American president. But that was before she caught onto the stage-mom potential of having a flamboyant daughter who happened to be not only a poet, performance artist, and computer genius but also a detective. And now a little thing like a missed stop sign was about to ruin it all. One minute Talba was barreling toward truth and justice; the next, a force from hell struck with a sound like a gunshot, leaving her humiliated and hurting. For a moment she thought maybe it was a gunshot; she wouldn't put it past the lying, low-down sack of manure she was following. But, no, it was a Ford Explorer--a car about twice the size of Talba's Camry--which had been lawfully moving through the intersection. She hadn't seen the car or the stop sign. A crowd was beginning to gather. A siren wailed in the distance. And Talba's back was killing her. In her current state she really couldn't go back to the office and deal with Eddie about this thing. He could be slightly more of a pain in the patootie than Miz Clara herself. There was only one good thing about this--that it wasn't Eddie's car that got wrecked. And not just because his was really his wife Audrey's Cadillac. It was handsomely appointed with the Global Positioning System that Talba had bought half-price from some fly-by-night spy shop having a fire sale. She had a weakness for shopping at spy shops; her idea was, with the GPS Eddie could track her if she got in a tight spot. But after spending a week's salary on it, she realized he didn't even have a laptop for the tracking system. So, under great protest, she'd made him let her install it in his own car. Under very great protest. Eddie claimed the twenty-first-century PI needed only six pieces of equipment, one of which was a child's toy and only two of which were electronic-cell phone, tape recorder, video camera, conventional camera, binoculars, and Tee-ball bat. The last was the closest thing to a weapon he ever carried. "It's well-balanced, with a good grip, and heavy enough to do some damage. And it's absolutely legal," he told Talba when he presented her with hers. Groaning, she retrieved it now, along with her maps and the other five items. She put the entire PI kit in a Guatemalan bag she had in the trunk, thinking that where it really belonged was in a new car. But she sure couldn't shop for one bent over like she was. So she called Babalu Maya for an appointment and got the tow truck to drop her at Whole Foods on its way to Camry heaven. Babalu, bodyworker extraordinaire (whose real name was probably Barbara), lived within spitting distance of the only store in New Orleans where you could buy a head of lettuce for the cost of a new Camry. Talba could walk the block and a half if she didn't collapse first; she could hobble it, anyhow. Or so she though. She found the effort made her nauseous. "Girl!" Babalu's face said Talba's pain was her pain. "I swear to God you're pale." Babalu was white; she said things like that. Talba was not merely African-American but black. Good and black, thank you very much. She knew she was nowhere near pale, but she couldn't be looking her best. "Give me that bag and sit down. Just sit down, now." Talba still had stairs to climb. Babalu exerted pressure on her shoulders; Talba yielded. And before she knew it, Babalu had done something, she hadn't a clue what, that made it possible to straighten up. "Can you make it upstairs?" Talba nodded gratefully and hobbled up ahead of Babalu, who evidently thought she might have to catch her if things didn't go well. Talba knew the drill so well she didn't even pause, just went into the first room off the hallway, removed her shoes and earrings, and slid gingerly onto the massage table. Babalu said, "Tell me about it." "Well, I didn't see the stop sign. This tank or something hit me on the shotgun side--caved in my whole front end." "You are one lucky female." Babalu's pretty face screwed itself up. She had short blond hair that she wore in a careless, shaggy bob, clear, satiny skin, and some kind of chain tattoo crawling up her arm--Celtic knots, she said, but it gave Talba the creeps. Like some kind of metaphorical half-handcuffs. Babalu had smiled the time she mentioned it--and not a nice smile, either; as if the effect was deliberate. Talba said, "Lucky. How come I can't quite see it that way? I'm pretty sure my car's a total." "Oh, I'm so sorry. Wish I had one to lend you." That was the way she was, Talba thought. A nurturer; a healer. She knew Talba only as a client, and yet she behaved like a friend. Talba groaned again and changed the subject, hoping for distraction from the intermittent pain. "Okay, enough about me. What's new with you?" She arched her back against Babalu's fingers. "You haven't been here in too long, or you'd know. Feel that? These muscles think they're bone. A little stress, I'd say." Talba ignored the last part. "Or I'd know. what?" Babalu waved her left hand provocatively; its fourth finger glinted. "I'm getting married." Talba tried to sit up, just to take in the news. Babalu leaned over her chest and pushed her down. Tough. But her cheeks were flushed and she was smiling. Talba gave up. "Hey, that's fantastic!" "Yeah. I'm pretty happy." The blush deepened. "Well, tell me everything." This was good. There was nothing so distracting as a little romance. "He's…cute." "Yes? And?" "Well, he's from Mississippi, and his name is Jason. He's about six feet tall with dark, gorgeous hair.…" "Umm hmm. Blue eyes, I bet." "Yeah. How'd you know?" "You like that. I remember." A bodyworker, she reflected, was like a hairdresser or an exercise partner. There you were for an hour, just the two of you--of course you were going to talk about who were dating. "He's probably an actor." Babalu nodded. "Pretty good, too." "I knew it You're such a stage-door Jenny." " like people with talent--the way I grew up was just so…I don't know…" "Stuffy?" "What makes you think that?" "You've got that deb look. Except for the tattoo, of course. And the zany hair." Babalu laughed. "Carefully cultivated. We were trailertrash, actually." "Back to the guy. Does he have a day gig?" "He's…ummm…a stock trader." "A trader ? With the market in the toilet?" Babalu shrugged. "He seems to do okay at it." "That's a fair-sized rock he gave you, anyhow." She realized Babalu hadn't said one really personal thing about the man. "What about him really, though? What's your favorite thing about him?" "My favorite thing?" The question seemed to catch her off guard, but she recovered quickly. "You think I'm going to talk about that ?" "Don't. Ow. It hurts to laugh. Also, you're mashing a tender spot." Instantly, Babalu's fingers lightened up. Talba sought once more to distract herself. "Okay, what do you like least about him?" "Least?" "Yeah, least. I know you're crazy in love and all that, but search your conscience--there's got to be something." Talba could have sworn Babalu's hands tightened on her back--even pinched a bit. She heard a sound like a sniff. Damn! She sure didn't want to get a cold. But it wasn't that. The sniff was followed by a sound like snurf , a smothered sound, but there was on mistaking it; Babalu was crying. "What is it?" Once again, she tried to rise, thinking to hug the healer, but Babalu held her down. "No. Let's finish the session." Talba didn't move, but she wasn't about to keep quiet. "Girlfriend, what is it?" "I think he's cheating on me." oh, boy . Talba had heard plenty of this kind of thing lately. Louisiana might have no-fault divorce, but there was still the issue of spousal support, which was why she was surveilling a low-down scumbag cheater when the Explorer slammed her. Proof of catting around could pay off handsomely, but that was irrelevant in Babalu's case. What was relevant was, the marriage was off to a rocky start and it hadn't even happened yet. "You can't marry an asshole who's cheating on you. Babalu, hear me--you do not deserve this. Give the man his ring back." "You're scrunching up again." "You're getting me upset." "Well, I just said he may be. He's probably not. Maybe he's…I don't know--maybe it's something else." "Talk to me. Tell me about it." "I can't. You're scrunching up. You want to walk out of here or not?" Talba tried to relax. "You know what I need? I need a detective." "No, you don't. You need out." "Could you relax, please? Look, can I come to your office tomorrow? Talk to you about it?" She sounded so pitiful Talba said okay, maybe they could trade services. But she never thought Babalu'd show up. Copyright © 2002 by Julie Smith Excerpted from Louisiana Bigshot by Julie Smith All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.