Julie Smith's New Orleans is full of secrets: Behind a roughshod door might be a palace, behind a polite family's veneer might be secrets powerful enough to end in murder.
"They say that New Orleans must be a great place to write mysteries because of all the crime there," says 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."
Smith finds secrets and potential in nearly all corners of New Orleans. On a hot, sticky day in July, she ventured out for a tour of her city — and a discussion of what makes it so special.
Walking around the Garden District, where graceful mansions line the streets as if showing off to each other, Smith stops in front of one house perched behind an elaborate iron-lace fence.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she says. "Look how huge it is, you can imagine all kinds of family secrets occurring there, can't ya?"
(In fact, Smith created a large Southern Gothic family for the home — complete with a corrupt judge and a murderer — in one of her novels.)
Only a short ferry ride away is Algiers Point, a place very few tourists ever go. It's a quiet neighborhood, says Smith, characterized by affordable houses and low crime. It might be a good place to raise a family, but that's not what Smith has in mind as she leads the way to the top of the levee that hulks high between the houses and the Mississippi River.
"I think it's just a divine place to dump a body. If you should need to," says the writer, adding, "I hope you never need to."
Later, Smith takes us to her favorite part of the city: The French Quarter. We enter Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a bar that purports to be the oldest in New Orleans. It also happens to be the watering hole of choice of Skip Langdon, Smith's most famous fictional detective.
Skip works in the New Orleans Police Homicide Division and makes a living out of exposing the city's secrets. She's a large woman who feels slightly out of place in her own body and her home of New Orleans. Smith says Skip represents her adolescent self; they both obviously love the city they live in, in spite of its flaws.
The city's most horrific flaw came to light almost three years ago, during Hurricane Katrina, when it was revealed that billions of dollars spent building levees to protect the city were for naught. The storm devastated the city — and the author. Smith's last novel was published a week before the storm hit the city. She hasn't published a book since.
"I've had people say to me: 'I always read mysteries before I got to a city because that's how I learn what's really going on there,' " says Smith. "I feel like that's my job, 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."
Smith says that the city has been irrevocably damaged 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. With all that, she wonders, 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 her character would have stayed, would have have been heroic, but then she pauses:
"If I really think about it, I feel she would have gone into a depression afterwards," Smith says. "She would've gotten depressed for a period of time. But she would've got past that. She would've handled it."
Smith says she's handling it, too. It took her a while, but she's writing again, and she hopes that someday she'll begin to understand her changed city enough to have Skip Langdon uncover more of its secrets.