Mean Woman Blues is Julie Smith's latest and the final adventure in a trilogy of Skip Langdon novels featuring Jaccomine. He is Dr. Moriarty to Skip's Sherlock Holmes, except this isn't polite Victorian London; it's New Orleans, and there's nothing subtle about Errol Jaccomine. In his previous appearances (Kindness of Strangers and Crescent City Kill), Errol has gone to such lengths as ordering the murders of several people, kidnapping his ex-wife, and controlling the minds of his psychotic followers. What to do for an encore? It had to be something on a large scale, or at least so in the mind of Errol Jaccomine, as Smith explains during a phone interview.
"I felt his delusions of grandeur were getting bigger and bigger," Smith says, "and I also felt that anybody who had committed the crimes that he has by now would be on the FBI's Most Wanted List."
He isn't No. 1; Smith thought that slot should be reserved for a terrorist, but he is No. 2 in more ways than one. Skip Langdon, a 6-foot, slightly overweight former Uptown debutante who has turned her back on the Audubon crowd, certainly would regard Jaccomine in that manner even though she hasn't seen him in two years. For her, he is a "pulsating monster" that infects her dreams and does so in a form that would have even the bravest of locals running in terror. He comes to her as a swarm of Formosan termites that are, "moving, living walls, trapping her and invading her nose, her ears, smothering, strangling ... ." Needless to say, it's time to put a tent over Errol.
But termites aren't easy to find and Formosans are even more insidious, since they can fly. In this case, Jaccomine flies first to Florida and eventually starts setting up his nest in Dallas. A wanted man, he needs to reinvent himself, so he enlists the aid of his millionaire ex-wife, Rosemarie Owens. She puts up the money for his plastic surgery and voice makeover, and she allows him to host a talk show, Mr. Right, on the cable station she owns. The show, which enables Errol to "right" the wrongs of ordinary people who have been victimized, quickly becomes a minor hit in Texas. Errol has dreams of his own which involve national syndication, a populist political movement and, gasp, even the White House. Don't laugh too hard; remember, Jerry Springer is eyeing the U.S. Senate.
Smith, who spends part of her time living in the French Quarter, effectively uses her experience as a journalist and a New Orleans resident. Unlike some writers who might rely only on the Vieux Carre for their setting, Smith visits a number of neighborhoods in her novels, including the current one where she has Skip following up on a lead in a gritty apartment complex in eastern New Orleans.
A veteran reporter who worked for The Times-Picayune and the San Francisco Chronicle, Smith can't resist a good story. In Mean Woman Blues, Skip heads a task force investigating cemetery thefts -- which actually plagued the city a few years back. Additionally, Smith bases Jaccomine on the notorious cult leader, Jim Jones, a man she interviewed for the Chronicle. Like her own creation, Smith didn't see Jones as a charismatic leader but more of paranoid megalomaniac.
"I thought Jones was kind of a classic paranoid, and, once again, he escalated," Smith recalls. "His craziness escalated to poisoning 900 people. What an evil man."
Errol Jaccomine won't have that kind of chance, and Smith, who feels her attraction to the mystery is its sense of justice and order, sees to that. The book isn't so much a whodunit as a how's-he-going-to-get-it. Smith gives her fans and the uninitiated a rollicking grandiose final episode that may be a bit over the top but is, after all, as described by Smith, "escapist literature."
Perhaps the greater mystery is what's going to happen to Skip Langdon. For this, Smith isn't too revealing.
"It's too early to say. There are two ways of looking at it. It might be a good time to end the series because she's done what she had to do -- she's got Jaccomine. On the other hand, I hate to see her go."
Julie Smith will sign copies of Mean Woman Blues from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, at the Garden District Book Shop (2727 Prytania St., The Rink, 895-2266), and 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23, at Octavia Books (513 Octavia St., 899-7323).