Cover image for Louisiana lament
Louisiana lament
Smith, Julie, 1944-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Forge, [2004]

Physical Description:
301 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
FICTION Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense

On Order



Allyson Brown&mdash-the Girl Gatsby, they called her. A woman of wealth, hostess of fabled parties, patron of the arts, especially of poets. Found floating in her own swimming pool, shot to death. Poet and fledgling detective Talba Wallis gets an urgent call from the sister she barely knows, Janessa. The Girl Gatsby was Janessa's close friend. But this call isn't an invitation to an elegant literary salon. Janessa wants off the hook as the principal murder suspect. Investigating, Talba and her perpetually irascible boss, Eddie, find the reality behind the Gatsby glamour. Allyson Brown was widely hated, a con artist who neglected her children, failed to pay her bills, and lied to everyone. The one person she loved may have ushered her to her death. The case takes Talba and Eddie from literary parties to Gulf Coast bait shops, from biker bars to abandoned wharves, and finally to the story of another Gatsby, which may yield answers, or greater mysteries. Louisiana Lament is Talba's journey through the not-so-genteel Southern literary scene, where backbiting and petty jealousies abound and mint juleps are served with canapés of carnage.

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 2

Booklist Review

Edgar Award-winning Smith writes two mystery series set in the New Orleans era starring female sleuths, Talba Wallis and Skip Langdon, respectively. Her latest in the Wallis series takes on the dog-eat-dog world of New Orleans society as it wraps itself around the southern literary scene. A call from Wallis' half sister, Janessa (whom Wallis discovered in a previous mystery), catapults the multitalented PI, computer expert, and poet into a double-homicide investigation. A mother and daughter are found murdered in their stately home: the mother is floating in the swimming pool, a bullet in her head; the daughter has died from multiple stab wounds. The mother is known as a modern-day female Gatsby. She came from nowhere, hosted elaborate parties, and now has ended up dead in her pool. Driving Wallis' interest in the case is the fact that her sister, a painter of decorative murals at the house, is a prime suspect. Wallis ranges throughout the state in the course of her investigation, giving the reader great lashings of Louisiana atmosphere. Vibrant. --Connie Fletcher Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

African-American poet and PI Talba Wallis and her boss Eddie Valentino investigate a society-page murder that gets uglier by the minute in Edgar-winner Julie Smith's fast-paced Louisiana Lament, the third in the series (after 2002's Louisiana Bigshot). From biker bar to college campus, the chase is on, and readers will remain hooked until the killer's comeuppance in the clever conclusion. Agent, Vicky Vijur. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The glad tidings had barely arrived: On this particular autumn day, early in the twenty-first century, New Orleans was not going to end up in Davy Jones's locker. The weather service claimed that under certain unfortunate conditions--all of which had been present for hours--the river would flood, the lake would flood, the land bowl between them would fill, and the city would sleep with the fishes. But Hurricane Carol had just veered to the west, sparing The City That Care Forgot, as has every major storm since Betsy in '65. The early-October near-miss was getting to be almost as much a New Orleans tradition as termite swarms on Mother's Day. But you never got used to trying to decide whether to build an ark or not. Everyone who could afford to had left town. Those who couldn't had spent the early morning praying to Our Lady of Perpetual Succor--or at least St. Expedite--for a quick fix. Now that it was granted, Carol was still moving slow and dumping rain by the barrel. The city, unlike its usually playful self, was shrouded in a pall of gray. It was going to be this way all day, and maybe the next. The schools were closed, and so were the city offices, but there was still power, and the phones worked. It was business as usual for many, if you didn't count the apocalyptic rain and the snarled traffic. Both Talba Wallis and her boss, Eddie Valentino, were among those who'd decided to play Russian roulette. But Talba had arrived at E.V. Anthony Investigations, not flushed with the triumph of having guessed right, but late, soaked, and out of sorts. Normally not a pessimist, she actually uttered the old Dorothy Parker line when the phone rang: What fresh hell is this ? "Talba?" said a voice she didn't know. "Talba, it's Janessa." "Who?" she asked, in the confusion of the moment. "Janessa." Long pause. "Janessa ya sister." Janessa, her sister. Whom she had seen exactly once in her life. Who had let it be known she wanted nothing to do with Talba. And who, today of all days, was on the other end of the line. Talba hadn't come close to assimilating this when Janessa spoke again. "I got a situation here." "What kind of situation?" "Bad. Real bad. Can you come on over here?" It didn't occur to Talba to panic. She barely knew the girl. "Janessa, what's going on?" she asked calmly. "I'm on Philip Street, just off St. Charles." She gave Talba an address on the river side of the avenue, in the Garden District, not at all the type of place Talba would expect to find Janessa. The Garden District was old, white, wealthy, stuffy, and way, way out of her sister's range of experience, Talba would have guessed. Janessa had impressed her as a young woman who'd stick pretty close to her own neighborhood, and this wasn't it. "So, Janessa…" She was about to repeat her question when her caller hung up. Well, hell. When she first found Janessa--which hadn't been all that easy, even for an ace PI and acknowledged computer genius (acknowledged by herself, at any rate)--she'd opened herself up to this. She wanted to help the kid, right? Apparently, that was going to require going out in the pouring rain. She selected an umbrella from the agency stand (the office manager, Eileen Fisher, kept a handy supply for days like this) and told Eileen she had to go out. She drove her old Isuzu to the distinctly upscale, slightly familiar neighborhood, found a parking place, opened the umbrella, and stumbled to the address Janessa had given her, which she hadn't remotely recognized. She stared in surprise at the nineteenth-century mansion, realizing she'd been there before, as a guest. But unless her sister was making house calls these days, she couldn't see Janessa there. Janessa was still a manicurist, so far as she knew, and the lady of the house certainly had need of manicures. Allyson Brower generally looked as if she spent about fifty percent of her time getting ready for fabulous parties, and the other fifty percent giving them. The latter part was more or less accurate. It was one of these that Talba had attended a couple of months before. She climbed the few steps, but she had no time to ring the bell. The door swung open on a young girl so vastly changed Talba wouldn't have recognized her on the street. Though her job was grooming other women, the Janessa Talba knew didn't go in much for grooming herself. She was overweight and unkempt, or had been. This Janessa still had some meat on her bones, but her hair was now woven into gorgeous braids--probably extensions like Talba's. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, but somehow, the outfit seemed carefully chosen, certainly carefully fitted. It flattered her full figure. "Janessa?" Talba blurted. "You look terrific." The girl pulled her inside, shut the door quickly. On closer inspection, she didn't look terrific. She looked scared to death. Her face was tear-streaked and grayish. Talba spoke again. "What is it? This is Allyson Brower's house, isn't it?" She swiveled her head to get her bearings, and gasped when she saw a gun, water dripping from it, on a console table in the foyer. A long-haired cat lapped at the little puddle the drip had formed. Under Talba's gaze, the cat dropped heavily to the floor. Janessa moved toward the gun, but Talba thrust out an arm to block her. "Wait. What's going on here?" " You take the gun. Somebody might be in the house." Talba's scalp prickled. She hated guns worse than some people hated rats. She dropped her dripping umbrella and frantically grabbed for her cell phone. Janessa groped her forearm. "Ya can't call the po-lice." Fighting panic, Talba threw the door open and tried to speak calmly. "Janessa, let's go outside. If you've got a prowler, we don't need to be in the house." Janessa peered anxiously in the opposite direction, then back at Talba. "No, I think it's all right. I already checked." "What is it, then?" Janessa glanced once more at the gun, and seemed to come to a decision. "Come on." She turned and walked away, leaving her sister soaking and confused. Talba found her cell phone--into which 911 had already been programmed--and followed anxiously through the center hall and kitchen, into a loggia, and out to Allyson's luxurious patio and swimming pool, the setting for her over-the-top parties, which were quickly becoming famous in a city with a lot of competition. It wasn't so festive at the moment. A woman--almost certainly Allyson--was floating face-up in the pool, hair swirling about her head. Her blue eyes were open and staring. But still as marbles. She was dressed in sandals, capris, and a blouse tied at the waist. Her face was white as wave-froth. To all appearances, she was dead, and had been for hours. But she didn't look as if she'd drowned. Talba had never seen a bullet wound up close, but the perfect round hole, dark with blood, in the woman's left forehead had to be one. Blood had stained her lemon-colored blouse--but not badly. If she'd bled a lot, the water had washed most of the blood away. Talba really hadn't known Allyson well (and hadn't particularly liked her) but there was something so sad about this used-up object, bereft of animation and joy and hope, that tears sprang to her eyes. And then panic seized her. "Is that Allyson?" "She dead, ain't she?" She had to be, but maybe there was a chance…"Help me get her out of there." "Already thought of that," Janessa said. "How we gon' do it?" It was a reasonable question. The Wallis girls were African American, Talba from an extremely modest background. Though they'd grown up separately, Talba hadn't had the benefit of swimming lessons at a country club and she doubted Janessa had, either. "Can you swim?" she asked. Miserably, Janessa shook her head. "Did you shoot her, Janessa?" "No!" "Who did?" "I ain' know. Found her like this." Panic continued to surge like current through Talba's body. That gun was between them and the door. "Come on. We've got to get out of here. The killer could still be in the house." She darted into the kitchen, through the house, and back to the foyer, Janessa running after her. Talba breathed a sigh of relief, seeing the gun still dripping on the silver-leaf table. The door remained open, and rain was beating in. She didn't know which was worse, venturing into the storm or staying inside. Janessa put a hand on her arm. "I think we okay. I took the gun, looked in every room. Nobody here." She pushed the door closed, fighting the wind and rain. "I wait right here for you and nothin' happen. We all right, I think. What we do now?" Talba put the phone to her ear. "Who you calling?" Janessa asked. "Nine-one-one." Her sister looked horrified, but made no move to stop her. "I need an ambulance at 1321 Philip Street," Talba said into the phone. "There's been a shooting." She hung up before the dispatcher could ask any questions. The first thing was to get some help for Allyson--in the unlikely event she wasn't beyond it--the second to get a friend on the scene. She had one who worked Homicide. She dialed information, got a number for the Third District, and asked for Detective Skip Langdon. "She isn't in at the moment," a cheerful voice told her. A male one that obviously belonged to a morning person. "May I take a message?" "It's an emergency." "You want her pager number?" Talba took it, left a message, and sighed, knowing she'd have to wait for a call-back. She turned to her sister. "Okay, Janessa, we've got a minute, but that's about all. Let's make it count. What the hell are you doing here?" "I work here," the girl said sullenly. "I'm a artist now. We paintin' a marsh in the bathroom." Allyson and her wall paintings. She'd had three or four two months earlier and must be adding more. "Go on." "I came in for work, found her like this. Called you." "That's it?" Janessa nodded. "Well, where the hell did the gun come from?" "Found it by the pool." "By the pool." "Right on the edge. I'm lookin' in the pool, lookin' at the gun, tryin' to figure out if I'm seein' right, and I hear a noise behind me. So I pick up the gun and turn around." "Pointing the gun?" Janessa smiled. "Yeah, but it's just Koko. She jump off the kitchen counter." "The cat?" "Umm-hmm. But now I'm good and scared. So I take the gun, run across the patio callin' for Rashad, but he don' answer. Rashad live in the carriage house on the other side of the pool." "Okay." Rashad? Right now last names were the least important part of the story. Thankfully, she heard sirens. "I open the door, he ain' there. Then I'm real scared. Scared of who's in the house, but even scareder of the po-lice. Shit! Can't call the po-lice. For all I know they toss my ass in jail, throw away the key. Finally, I think of callin' you." She gave Talba a sullen look. "Coulda just ran. I'm tryin' to do the right thing here." She reached in her pocket and pulled out her own cell phone. "Then I take the gun, look around the house, call you while I'm lookin'." "Oh, man." The police are really going to buy that one , Talba thought, wondering what to make of it herself. The siren had grown steadily louder, and now an ambulance stopped in front of the house. Talba glanced at the gun again and breathed a sigh of relief. Two paramedics rushed in. She directed them to the pool, instructing Janessa to stay by the door and wait for the police. A pair of uniformed cops were running up the walk when she got back, grim-faced in the downpour. It's starting , she thought. They were out of time. Please, please let Skip call back , she prayed, and another district car arrived. Two more cops made the mad dash up the walk. Talba explained the situation quickly. "Is there anyone else in the house?" the short white one asked. Talba shook her head. "We're pretty sure there isn't. My sister checked before I got here." Two left to make sure. The women led the second pair out to the kitchen, where they could see the paramedics trying to fish Allyson from the pool. Before they started firing questions, Talba tried to take control. "I'm a PI. My sister found Ms. Brower in the pool and called me." They turned quickly to Janessa. "Why'd you call your sister? Why didn't you call the police?" The girl shook her head, apparently too intimidated even to speak. Her eyes darted toward the window, then back to Talba, terrified. One of the officers noticed and spoke to the other. "I'm going outside." The remaining one said, "Is there somewhere we can go to sit down?" and Talba realized that, in some way she'd missed, he'd been ordered to keep an eye on her and Janessa. Getting no answer, he said to Janessa, "Do you work here?" Janessa nodded. Still not talking. "Where we can go to talk?" Janessa thought a moment. "Library," she said, and led the cop and Talba into a small, comfortable room lined with books and equipped with an antique sofa (the one uncomfortable touch), as well as a couple of wing-back chairs. The two women took the sofa, the cop one of the chairs. Janessa had evidently been doing some thinking. She answered the question on the table. "I ain' know what to do. I call Talba 'cause she a detective." "PI," Talba said again. "I work with Eddie Valentino. You know Eddie?" In New Orleans, it was always best to get your bona fides on the table; it made for friendlier treatment. Apparently, this guy hadn't heard about it. He ignored her question, instead introducing himself as "Officer Lambert," and asked for the women's names and addresses. Lambert was in his thirties, white, and a little pudgy. Talba thought he seemed tired, but perhaps that was just the weight of the job. The taller and better-looking of the two--the one apparently in charge--was a brother. He returned shaking his head. Talba was pretty sure what that meant. Janessa said, "Miz Allyson dead?" Both cops ignored the question. "You say you work for her?" Janessa nodded. "What's her name?" "Allyson Brower. I'm doin' some paintin' for her." The black one spoke. He was still standing, wet and dripping, obviously uncomfortable. "Why don't you tell us what happened here?" He didn't introduce himself, but his name tag read THOMPSON. "I ain' know!" the girl whined, and Talba winced. "All's I know is, I come in this mornin' and found her in the pool." "How did you get in?" "With the key in the fake rock outside. Usually Rashad lets me in, but he ain' here. See, I went out to find him and--" "Back up a second. Who's Rashad?" "He live in the carriage house. Over there--on the other side of the pool." "Did you check to see if he's there?" "Yes sir. He ain't. See, I come in, everything real quiet, holler for Rashad, don't get no answer, you know? Then I go out to find him, find her instead. I start screamin' and screamin', bang on Rashad door, even open it, holler for him--he ain' there. Then I holler for Carmen and Austin, but ain' nobody answer. I'm gon' tell ya somethin', it's spooky as hell in this big ol' house. I want to go outside, but it's rainin' so hard--and anyway, she outside. So I just try to keep calm, and think who'd know what to do. And I think of my big sister, Talba." Thompson said, "Carmen and Austin?" "Carmen the cleaning lady. Austin Miz Allyson son. He visitin'." "And neither one of them's here?" Janessa shook her head. "Pretty sure they ain't. Call Talba." She shivered. "Spooky in here." Talba noticed she'd left out the part about picking up the gun and searching the house. The doorbell rang, and Thompson strode to answer it. He let in two men pushing a gurney. Coroner's deputies , Talba thought helplessly. Skip Langdon, where the hell are you ? She tried her theory out on Thompson when he returned. "Was that the coroner's office?" As if he hadn't even heard, Thompson turned to Janessa again. These guys were obviously graduates of the we'll-ask-the-questions school of police work. She wondered if it would have been different if she'd been Eddie--her thoroughly plugged-in boss--and was sure it would have. By now, he'd no doubt have figured out he knew both these cops' dads from high school. They'd be afraid he'd call their mothers if they weren't polite to him. Thompson said to Janessa, "When did you last see Ms. Brower?" "Last night. She made supper for Rashad and me. See, I was working late and I heard Rashad and Allyson talking. He all upset about somethin'--yellin', kind of--so I came out to see what was the matter and she huggin' him. I look closer and I see he been cryin'. I don't say nothin', see, I'm real embarrassed, and I'm about to go back in the bathroom and do some more work when he see me, and he push her away, kind of. Miz Allyson say, 'It's okay, Janessa. Rashad's just had a disappointment, that's all. I'm 'bout to fix him a snack. Why don't you join us?' Just like I'm some invited guest. Rashad say, 'Sure, Janessa, you been workin' hard. Come on, have somethin' to eat.' So Miz Allyson, she fix us some grilled cheese sandwiches. Rashad, he a poet, ya know?" She looked sideways at her sister, and suddenly something clicked with Talba. "You mean Rashad Daneene?" Janessa seemed excited. "You know him? You know Rashad?" "I've met him a few times. At open-mike readings." And in this house. "See, my sister's a poet, too," Janessa said, and Talba could have sworn there was pride in her voice. "The Baroness Pontalba? You heard o' her?" Thompson and Lambert shook their heads, Lambert with a little half smile, as if to say, "Are you kidding? Heard of a poet ?" Talba was used to that sort of thing. Janessa didn't seem to notice. She said, "There's this real pristijis writing school--" Talba struggled with that, then realized the girl had said "prestigious." "Hollywood? No, just Holly, maybe. Somethin' like that." "Hollins," Talba supplied. "Tha's it. Well, Rashad didn't get in. That was the disappointment. See, Miz Allyson, she help writers. She famous for it--tha's how Rashad come to be livin' in her carriage house. He take care of things for her--fix things, weed the garden, do a little paintin'. He the one hired me here, to help him paint a couple rooms. He do things for Allyson and she let him live there for free. So she tryin' to help him get into Hollins and they both real disappointed he didn't make it. That's what the whole thing was all about." Lambert said, "How did you find out about all that?" "They told me while Allyson fixin' supper." "And what happened afterwards?" "Well, I went back to clean up, put things away, and Allyson, she tryin' to cheer Rashad up. She put on some music, be dancin' with him. So I come out, all ready to go home, and they say, 'Come on, dance with us.' So we all dance a little, we drinkin' a little wine, and Austin come in." "Austin." "Allyson son, the one visitin'. Well, he come in and he have a fit. He say, 'What the hell goin' on here?' something like that, and his mama say, 'Come on, Austin, let's dance. It's a beautiful night to dance.' And he say again, "What the hell goin' on?' 'Bout then, we catch on, he really mad, maybe drunk or somethin'. Allyson say, 'Oh, Austin, it's so sad. We feel bad for Rashad, 'cause he didn't get into Hollins. We chasin' the blues here. Playin' music, gon' wake up to a bran' new day. Come on, get yaself a beer and join us.' "Well, Austin, he ain't havin' none of it. He say, 'Mama, whatcha doin' dancin' with the help ?' Jus' like that, like he might as wella said the 'N' word. Well, Miz Allyson shocked. You can see it. She say, 'Austin, I didn't raise you to be rude in front of my frien's. You apologize right now.' "Instead, he say, 'You gon' get yaself in trouble this way. Ya don't know nothin' 'bout half the people ya hang with. Don't know whatcha doin' three-quarters o' the time. Ya just a ole drunk broke-down whore.' Well, then that really starts it, they yellin' back and forth, callin' each other names, then Miz Allyson say, 'You ain't never gon' get a penny of my money!' and Austin, he just stalk off. To his room, I guess." Lambert and Thompson were clearly riveted. Talba was more or less on the edge of her chair as well. But Janessa quit talking, seemingly just as her story was getting good. Thompson crossed his legs, making an obvious effort to control himself. Finally, he said, "Then what happened?" Speaking softly, drawing it out, as if he didn't much care, just asking to be polite. "Well, I got real embarrassed and left." "Just like that?" Lambert blurted. "Without saying good-bye?" "No, suh. I say good-bye. Just say, 'Think I better go,' somethin' like that, and Allyson say, 'Sorry about Austin. He shouldn't drink.'" "Did you get the feeling he was drunk?" "Couldn't tell. Coulda been." "Where'd you go when you left?" "Home." "Did you stop anywhere on the way?" "No, suh. I went straight home." "And who do you live with?" "That ain't your business." Lambert looked thoroughly exasperated. "Let me rephrase the question. Was anyone at home when you got there?" "Don't know. Didn't see nobody." The doorbell rang again. It was a couple of male cops in suits--obviously the Homicide guys. Lambert waited with the two women while Thompson filled them in. Out of the blue, Janessa said, "You sure could use a manicure." Talba looked at her hands. The last professional manicure she'd had had been the one Janessa did. "Guess I could," she said. "You could paint my nails 'Professor Plum.'" Janessa grinned. "You remembered." It was their one common memory. Copyright © 2004 by Julie Smith Excerpted from Louisiana Lament by Julie Smith, 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.