The Edgar Awards Revisited: New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith (Best Novel; 1991)

This 1991 Edgar Winner opens during Mardi Gras in New Orleans where a civic leader and socialite is gunned down by a parade-goer dressed as Dolly Parton.

Perusing the list of Edgar winners, trying to decide which I wanted to tackle for this retrospective, New Orleans Mourning jumped out almost immediately thanks to its utterly gonzo synopsis:

It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and civic leader and socialite Chauncey St. Amant has been crowned Rex, King of Carnival. But his day of glory comes to an abrupt and bloody end when a parade-goer dressed as Dolly Parton guns him down.

Obviously, I had to read this.

The sixth book Smith published, New Orleans Mourning is the first to introduce Skip Langdon, a rookie beat cop pulled into the investigation thanks to her society connections. Skip turned her back on the rarefied world of New Orleans’ haute monde years ago, much to the disdain of her social-climbing family (daddy dearest is the doc the upper crust depend on for pick-me-up pills). But after witnessing Chauncey’s death firsthand while on parade control detail, the department needs her to cash in on those connections to, well, spy on the St. Amant clan and their coterie.

See More: Revisiting the Edgar Awards

Chauncey was one of the city’s biggest movers and shakers, well-known for his activism, support of the arts (and its predominantly black community), and political maneuvering. So, of course, the mayor and chief want his messy murder cleaned up as quickly as possible.

But there’s very little about this story that’s clean and tidy. The St. Amants—lifelong lush and wife Bitty, queer actor son Henry, aimless and promiscuous daughter Marcelle, and devoted family friend Tolliver—have a cadre of dirty, sordid secrets and so many reasons to want to see the King dead.

As is so often the case, the guy with a stellar public face was a total bastard in private.

We become privy to all of these through the characters’ own thoughts and recollections; the series may bear Skip’s name, but she’s only one of the players in this larger-than-life melodrama.

And that’s the greatest strength of Smith’s story: its layers of voices and multiple deviations into the painfully personal past. We’re forced to empathize with Bitty, Marcelle, Tolliver, and even the unlikable Henry as we see their traumas and experiences through their own eyes. Any one of them could be the killer—everyone has a convenient blank spot in their alibi right around the time of the shooting—and the more we learn about Chauncey the gladder we are he’s gone.

As is so often the case, the guy with a stellar public face was a total bastard in private.

The other standout here: Smith’s descriptive prose. Skip’s pre-Katrina New Orleans is a vibrant character unto itself, with its mausoleums and Spanish moss and complicated hierarchies and history. Interspersed throughout the character drama are sections like this:

There was a nineteenth-century Caribbean feel to the place, more so in recent years, since the fad for old-fashioned gaslights. On a summer evening, with the gaslights on, the improbable scent of mixed magnolia and jasmine in the air, one could almost hear the clack of hooves on cobblestones, see sails in the distance. The gardens were rife with banana trees, crotons, profusions of tropical plants — and each tendril, to Skip, was a viper that would surely strike you if you turned your back. She thought of it as evil and dangerous a neighborhood as its denizens found Tremé, as stultifying and smothering as she felt the Quarter was liberating.

 

Yet her feelings had nothing to do with the beauty of the place. They were about her associations with the homes in which she’d visited here, full of air as thick as that near the river, harboring atmospheres that made you gasp for breath.

New Orleans Mourning is certainly a mystery, and there’s plenty of space devoted to police procedural and posturing as Skip tries to prove herself, harbors the traditional rookie fantasy of cracking the case, and spars with the homicide detectives, Tarantino and O’Rourke, officially assigned to the investigation. But it’s frequently a family drama worthy of Tennessee Williams, too, with enough psycho-sexual thriller flourishes to send Freud into raptures. At times, it even veers into Greek tragedy.

As a heroine, Skip is solid enough. She’s big, brassy, confident, and has a past, but she’s still fresh enough to police work that she can be naïve and thoughtless. Smith has gone on to write nine more mysteries starring her, though none of them have ever achieved the success of this debut.

It’s hard to say why that is without reading on; New Orleans Mourning is one of the most substantial melodramas I’ve come across. From that Dolly Parton opening to the film-scorching ending, this story feels ripe for the cinematic treatment and has some surprisingly significant things to say about the “sins of the parents,” race, social strata, and childhood trauma.

Honestly, it makes me rather sad I’d never heard of Julie Smith before. She knows how to add plenty of meat and spice to a potboiler.

Notes from the 1991 Edgar Awards: 

  • The other nominees for Best Novel were Reginald Hill for Bones and Silence, Robert D. Zimmerman for Deadfall in Berlin, Jay Brandon for Fade the Heat, and (the best-known name of the bunch) Loren D. Estleman for Whiskey River.
  • Tony Hillerman was the Grand Master.
  • The Best Young Adult honor went to Chap Reaver for Mote.
  • Now-grand dame of mystery Patricia Cornwell won the Best First Novel award for Postmortem, the first in the Kay Scarpetta series—she beat out Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), too.
  • David Handler—no, not the guy also known as Lemony Snicket, another David Handler—took home the Best Paperback Original for The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Donald E. Westlake nabbed the Best Motion Picture Screenplay honor for The Grifters (beating out Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas and Alan J. Pakula and Frank Pierson for Presumed Innocent).

Next week, tune in as Nick Kolakowski examines A Dance at the Slaughterhouse by Lawrence Block. See you then!


A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.

Check Out 1990’s Winner: Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke!

Comments

  1. Jackie Mungle

    it all sounds good to me.

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