Across the Bridge - September 2019
- Story by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, photos by Ellis Anderson
She looks like the heroine sleuth in a wholesome mystery series from your childhood. Or like Midge, Barbie’s best friend.
Julie Smith has long red hair that swings, and perky bangs, and a perpetually youthful vibe that contradicts the image you get when you read one of her hard-boiled, prize-winning murder mysteries featuring a tall, tough female detective who daily wades through big city crime and sleaze.
One of those books, “New Orleans Mourning,” won the 1991 Edgar Allan Poe Award, the top national prize for her crowded genre. She was the first woman to win the Edgar since 1956, and that book was the first to feature Julie’s most popular fictional detective, Skip Langdon, who definitely doesn’t live in Nancy Drew’s River Heights.
Across the Bridge
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A few of Julie Smith's books
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Early this year Julie and her husband, business consultant Lee Pryor, moved from the Marigny in New Orleans to Bay St. Louis and are happily embracing the slower pace. They thought about and explored San Miguel, Mexico, and Fairhope, Ala., among other pleasant destinations.
Like Goldilocks and her persnickity tour of the Three Bears’ home, Julie and Lee found Mexico too far, Fairhope too crowded and “already discovered” and something amiss everywhere they looked.
Finally, a “Eureka!” moment when it occurred to both that Bay St. Louis, which they visited often and always enjoyed, was just right. It is, of course, only an hour from New Orleans and their many city friends – not to mention Julie’s hair stylist – less expensive than the city, and lousy with the yachting that Lee enjoyed for years in New England and San Francisco.
So six months and 30-plus home tours later, they bought the shuttered house they had admired first of all in a photo, a charming coral cottage in a 10-year-old subdivision with adjacent green space, just off St.Charles.
“Not in the summer,” Julie says, quickly.
And after that you have to remember the first lines of “New Orleans Beat”: People hate New Orleans because it’s hot – certain people, that is, from the sort of bland, tepid climate that spawns good mental health and consuming boredom. In a hot climate, anything can happen….”
And you have to hope with fervance that the ocean breeze doesn’t unduly domesticate Skip Langdon. There is that danger.
Many days you find Lee on the porch drinking his coffee and spoiling their King Charles spaniel, Rambla. And Julie is indulging a passion for off-the-wall decorating, filling their new home with original art and bright appointments. She uses the same sense of humor employed in her mysteries to label the drawers on a dining room cabinet: Forged Passports, Alibis, Brass Knuckles, Stolen Securities, Fabergé Eggs….
But, mystery fans rejoice. Julie remains in the traces, daily handling a capacity workload of writing, publishing and marketing. After Katrina, Julie started an e-book publishing company called “booksBnimble” that specializes in mysteries – her own and those of other authors. She begins each day with editing and correspondence – “I get that out of the way first”—and changes pace later, working on her own stories.
Her home office is upstairs in a richly-appointed corner of the guest bedroom. Harem scarves soften the ceiling, and the view is blisss. But the Mississippi Gulf Coast might just inspire a murder or two if we’re lucky.
“I’ll set something here, I suspect.”
Julie’s mysteries are informed by her former life as a newspaper reporter for The New Orleans Times-Picayune and the San Franciso Chronicle. It was at the Chronicle that Julie decided she was tired of feeding the voracious daily journalism monster.
“I wanted to do my own work,” she says, remembering the day the straw broke her camel. The editor told her that the paper was going to become computerized, and that he’d noticed she hadn’t taken the training course designed to prepare reporters for the technological onslaught.
“I told him that day I was leaving.”
She appreciates the irony that now she’s up to her bangs in computer work and that most of her books are available only in the popular e-versions.
There was, of course, transition, and she and two other female writers who had to make a living with words formed a consortium of sorts called “Invisible Ink,” which did a little of everything, from editing other authors’ books to writing news releases for political candidates. Julie also did a stint for the San Franciso district attorney’s office, more grist for the mystery mill.
Even now, in the quiet Bay, her eyes brighten as a new friend recalls a long ago murder when a body was found in a chifferobe floating in St. Louis Bay.
There is hope, Skip Langdon, there is hope.