Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, a strong sense of place can add a great deal to a novel or series. In fact, most readers I know want their stories to ‘place’ them in a particular setting; it gives the story a sense of authenticity. To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look at Julie Smith’s Talba Wallis series, which takes place in New Orleans. Let’s turn the spotlight on Louisiana Bigshot, the second in the series.
Talba Wallis is a private investigator and poet who divides her time between her work, her poetry and her boyfriend Darryl Boucree. She works for Eddie Valentino, who owns E.V. Anthony Investigations. One day Wallis gets a visit from her friend and fellow poet Clayton Robineau, a bodyworker/therapist who goes by the name of Babalu Maya. Babalu wants to hire Wallis to find out whether her fiancé Jason Wheelock is cheating on her. Wallis doesn’t want to break her friend’s heart if Wheelock is cheating, and she’s learned that sometimes knowing the truth is devastating. She would rather Babalu simply break up with her fiancé then have to deal with ‘the dirty details.’ But she agrees to take the job and before long, she finds out that Babalu’s suspicions are justified.
Shortly after Wallis breaks the bad news to her friend, Babalu dies of what looks like a self-induced heroin overdose. The police want to close the case as a suicide but Wallis doesn’t think that’s true. Babalu had a somewhat self-destructive past, but she’d gotten her life together and was positive about the future. Wallis doubts very much that someone who was getting stronger and was optimistic would have committed suicide. Then she gets a visit from Jason Wheelock. Wheelock says that everyone blames him for his fiancée’s death. He doesn’t believe Babalu killed herself either and he hires Wallis to find out the truth about her death. In part he wants to clear his name and in part he wants answers.
Soon enough, Wallis finds that this case is more complex than she thought. For one thing, no-one in the victim’s family wants to talk to her. At first she thinks it’s because it was she who found out the information about Wheelock’s infidelity. But it’s not long before she learns that she’s being ‘frozen out’ for quite different reasons. She does learn though that a tragic event in Babalu’s past may be the key to everything. But very few people connected with what happened will speak to Wallis. And she’s fairly certain that those who are willing to talk are not telling everything they know. The calculated silence convinces Wallis that she’s dealing with a murder and she’s proven right. Babalu’s death turns out to be related to her past and to people who are desperate to protect a reputation.
In the meantime, Wallis has learned a shocking fact about her own past. On the one hand, she knows that she needs to follow up on it and learn more about her own history. On the other, she’s afraid, if I can put it this way, of what she might find, and not exactly eager to confront the truth. But as the novel goes on, she searches for answers. In the end, and with help from Boucree, her work-mates at E.V. Anthony and some friends, Wallis finds out the truth about Babalu’s death and her own past.
As I mentioned, this story has a strong sense of place. In part that sense of place comes from physical descriptions:
‘Jason lived in the area of town referred to as the Lower Garden District, not to be even slightly confused with the Garden District proper, which was very proper indeed. The lower version was hip, upwardly mobile, mixed in just about every way, and a little dicey – actually a by-the-numbers neighborhood for an unemployed actor. It offered good deals if you didn’t mind watching your back.’
Smith also places the reader in New Orleans in other ways. The dialogue, the customs, the religion, the manners and so on all reflect the city’s culture. In fact, when we learn the motive for the murder we see that it too fits in with the area’s culture.
Another element that is clear in this novel is the character of Talba Wallis. She’s
‘…not merely African-American but black. Good and black, thank you very much.’
Her race plays an important role in Wallis’ outlook on life. She doesn’t automatically hate or even resent all White people. She has White friends, a White boss and mixes with Whites without automatically assuming the worst. But racism is a part of life in parts of New Orleans and she’s felt it too often. Her feelings about it come through in her poetry, which is another essential part of her character. There are several examples of her poetry in the novel and they tell a lot about how she views life.
Racism and classism (and not just among Whites) are critical elements in this novel. It turns out that Babalu is from one of the ‘better’ families in New Orleans and Wallis is already at a real disadvantage in speaking with them when she learns that they live in Clayton, in an area where only wealthy Whites live. In fact at one point she’s in Clayton waiting in her car to speak with an old friend of Babalu when she’s arrested on trumped-up charges but mostly because she’s Black. The charge is sometimes referred to DWB (Driving While Black) and it’s a sad reality of life in some places. But Wallis uses the racism if you will to her own advantage. When she discovers that none of the White people in Babalu’s family will speak to her, she decides to concentrate on the household staff and their friends, all of whom are Black. As she suspects, the wealthy Whites talk openly in front of their staff as though they were invisible, so Wallis learns a lot. She learns a lot too from Babalu’s old high school friends, some of whom are also Black.
This is a PI novel, so another important element in it is a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the way private investigators go about their work. Wallis spends her share of time waiting in cars, taking ‘photos, doing background checks and so on. The life of a PI is not painted as action-packed or glamourous, although I think I can say without spoiling the story that there’s a car chase in it. Instead, Smith gives a more day-to-day look at what private investigation companies do, who hires them and how they get answers.
In some ways, this is a sad novel. Wallis finds out the truth about Babalu’s murder and her own past, but that doesn’t ‘set the world right again.’ And the racism and classism that we see in the story don’t go away. They’re there and those affected are quite open about the injustice. But it’s not an entirely bleak novel. There are moments of optimism in the story and there’s also a sarcastic sense of humour. Here for instance is what Wallis tells Babalu about part of the process of hiring E.V. Anthony Investigations:
‘We have this instrument of torture Eddie invented to scare away customers, called the intake interview. If you can survive it, you might as well marry the guy [Jason Wheelock], because that proves you can handle anything.’
The dashes of humour are part of what keep the story moving.
The story is told partly from Wallis’ point of view and partly from Eddie’s so readers who prefer only one perspective will be disappointed. But it’s clear who’s doing, thinking and saying what; Smith doesn’t leave the reader (at least not this one) confused. Ant on another note, fans of Julie Smith’s sleuth Skip Langdon (who has her own series) will be pleased to know that she makes an appearance here.
Louisiana Bigshot is a believable PI mystery with a thread of humour and a unique sleuth who fits into the New Orleans setting and context. The characters, the plot and the solution are all reflections of life in The Big Easy. But what’s your view? Have you read Louisiana Bigshot? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 11 February/Tuesday 12 February – The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill
Monday 18 February/Tuesday 19 February – Unexpected Night – Elizabeth Daly
Monday 25 February/Tuesday 26 February – Full Dark House – Christopher Fowler