On first reading, the most notable quality in Julie Smith’s novels is the attention she gives to plotting. Her novels are well-made mysteries, in which information subtly inserted early in the work takes on importance as her detectives draw closer to discovering the perpetrator of the crimes they have set out to solve. Like any good mystery writer, Smith provides a sufficient number of red herrings and false leads to keep her detective busy and her readers guessing about the identity of the murderer. What emerges on careful reading of Smith’s novels, however, is an appreciation for her use of setting and characterization. Not only are her descriptions of places deftly drawn, but also in the New Orleans novels especially, they are integral to the larger story she wishes to tell. Smith’s major characters—Rebecca Schwartz, Skip Langdon, and Talba Wallis—are multidimensional, evolving slowly through each novel in the series in which they are featured. Through them Smith explores a network of personal and social relationships that offers readers a window on contemporary life that extends beyond the intellectual pleasures derived from solving the mystery around which each novel is organized.
Death Turns a Trick
Smith’s first detective novel, Death Turns a Trick, introduces readers to Rebecca Schwartz, a self-described Jewish feminist lawyer living in San Francisco. Schwartz is thrust into the role of detective when she discovers a woman dead in her apartment. The young woman is no stranger, however; Schwartz had met her earlier in the evening, at a house of prostitution where Schwartz was attending a risqué party. Because the principal suspect is Schwartz’s boyfriend—who is the brother of the victim—complications are manifold as she sets out to defend her lover by finding his sister’s killer.
Smith employs a chatty first-person style in presenting the story, allowing her main character to speak directly to readers. She also demonstrates exceptional ability in providing a considerable amount of background information about Schwartz, her family, and her circle of friends. Combining elements of the conventional romance novel with those of the mystery, Smith manages to interest readers not only in the hunt for the killer but also in the personal life of the protagonist. The novel offers a tongue-in-cheek critique of feminism, celebrating its strong points but lampooning its more excessive qualities, which Smith evidently considers to be barriers to healthy relationships between men and women.
In Huckleberry Fiend (1987), Smith’s second novel featuring Paul McDonald, her only male sleuth, the journalist and would-be novelist is called on by a friend to help locate a valuable manuscript: the missing sections of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). McDonald follows leads that take him to the haunts of several noted collectors, including a famous romance novelist, an enterprising book dealer, and a business tycoon with unusual habits for acquiring unique art objects. Traveling from his native Oakland, California, to Mississippi and Virginia City, Nevada, to track down leads, McDonald ends up endangering not only himself, but also his lover and the friend for whom he is trying to recover the manuscript, as more than one person seems bent on keeping him from discovering what happened to the holograph of Twain’s masterpiece. The somewhat surprising denouement allows Smith’s amateur...
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