In her second outing (after 2001's well-received Louisiana Hotshot) from Edgar-winner Smith, Talba Wallis, whose day job as a newly licensed PI never interferes with her nighttime gig as the performance poet called the Baroness de Pontalba, finds herself entangled in the dirty laundry of white folks' family secrets when she sets out to prove that her friend Babalu's death was murder, not suicide and not a drug overdose. In the end, the snarl of old family skeletons, corrupt politicians and racial ugliness becomes too serpentine for its own good, and the solution to the murder is vaguely unsatisfying. Far more appealing are the strongly drawn characters. The interplay between the young black woman and her much older white boss, a man who admires her brain and her fearlessness but would never let on, is warm and respectful; Smith nicely plays it against the very real and very dangerous racial divide that Talba encounters when she investigates her friend's smalltown past. The fiercely independent Talba still lives with her no-nonsense mama, Miz Clara, who makes the best fried chicken known to man and thinks Talba's way of dressing for poetry readings makes her look like "some fool who's been to one too many rummage sales." But Talba, as her sweet schoolteacher boyfriend never fails to remind her, is every inch a baroness. She's also a fine poet, and one of the delights of the book is that Smith lets us peek inside the mind and heart of a poet at work, revealing the process as well as the result. (Aug. 23)
FYI:Smith is the author of three other mystery series, the best known featuring police detective Skip Landon. The first Landon title, New Orleans Mourning, won the best novel Edgar in 1991.