365 pages. $18. Merriment and murder mingle in Julie Smith's mysteries, in which homicide detective Skip Langdon carries out the unenviable task of trying to solve crimes in "the world's most serious party town." After unraveling a Mardi Gras murder in 1991's "New Orleans Mourning," Skip is once again faced with a horrible crime committed during a civic celebration. This time, Ham Brocato, producer of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, is stabbed in the chest just before his annual kick-off party.
Skip is suspicious of Ham's girlfriend, a beautiful Cajun singing star named Ti-Belle Thiebaud, who seems incapable of telling the truth about anything. There's also the worrisome disappearance of Melody Brocato, Ham's 16-year-old half-sister; reportedly, she was devoted to Ham, but why would she have run away if she weren't the guilty party?
It's always a pleasure to spend time with Skip, a no-nonsense, level-headed heroine in a wild and reckless city, but in "Jazz Funeral," Melody steals the show. Ms. Smith follows the girl through New Orleans' meanest streets as she flees her troubled family, dreaming of musical stardom; the torment and temptations faced by a runaway teen are depicted with sensitivity and depth, making "Jazz Funeral" a genuinely moving mystery. Andrei Codrescu, a National Public Radio commentator and poet, came to the United States from Romania when he was 19, in 1966, believing, among other things, that dogs in America carry pretzels on their tails (that, from his grandmother). He was quickly disabused of most of his preconceived ideas, but was not fully Americanized until 1990, when television producer Roger Weisberg asked him the question that would change his life: Would you like to drive?
The author -- who lived in Baltimore for several years before moving to Louisiana -- was quite comfortable in his role as eternal passenger, but the proposal was irresistible. He enrolled at the Safe Driving School in New Orleans, bought himself a 1968 Cadillac and set off on his adventure. Mr. Codrescu is the print equivalent of character actors who like to chew up the scenery just a bit, to get themselves noticed, but he has found some tasty morsels: everything from fellow poets to his gun instructor in Las Vegas. This is a man you've been seeing for several years, Maisie said to her widowed mother, and you haven't told me about him or introduced me. Then Maisie begins to understand: She couldn't meet him; the man was married. Her mother wanted to protect them and their relationship. Before "The Paper Anniversary" ends, Maisie and her husband, Jack, understand many things that can make or break their own marriage.
Joan Wickersham, whose work was included in "The Best American Short Stories, 1990," writes in her first novel a kind of luminous prose, reminiscent of Jane Austen. At her worst, she makes too much over too little. At her best, her writing brims with tight, imagistic glimpses into contemporary relationships.
Jack and Maisie meet, fall in love, and live together. He is a graduate student studying Germanic literature, and she works as a secretary. Problems begin when they marry. Jack inherits a french-fry plant from his parents. Maisie, meanwhile, decides to pursue a writing career. The resultant commuter marriage -- Jack lives in Maine and Maisie in New York -- becomes the battleground for this enjoyable but not always grounded story.