Smith's first Skip Langdon novel (New Orleans Mourning) won the 1991 mystery writers' Edgar Award—making her the first American woman since 1956 to snare that prize. Langdon, a cynical, oversize female police detective who is the scandal of her high-placed New Orleans family, returns to capture a mass murderer in a book both gritty and witty.
Even the premise has a certain humor: The strangler takes the name Axeman from a never captured 1919 serial killer who spared any citizen if he heard jazz playing in the house. Well, imagine the effect this news has on a town best-known for its parties. Except the people most in jeopardy aren't the partying types. The '90s Axeman is stalking members of the city's 12-step programs—Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, CODA and all.
Langdon is a splendid female heroine—tough enough to pursue a law enforcement career and sensitive enough to consider the nuances of career dressing: "She had had I he courage not to wear heels, but a rare moment of social insight had suggested she really couldn't skip panty hose. So at the moment her legs felt like sweaty sausages." She even, when necessary, can pull out the feminine wiles: "She stood very close to him, touching his arm, touching her thigh to his....She licked her lips, having read somewhere that men think that's a seduction signal. She'd never felt like a bigger ass in her life.
Trouble is, Langdon sees homicidal potential in nearly every 12-step regular: Di, the new-age dingbat with a history of child abuse; Alex, the onetime best-selling con man-shrink; Missy, the too perky incest survivor. And just when she zeroes in on a particular suspect, a friend threatens to blow her anonymous cover.
Remarkably, ibis dangerous mix of humor and pathos works. The Axe-mans Jazz is a mesmerizing story, from the first glimpse of its weary and rumpled detective to its jarring and deeply disturbing ending. (St. Martin's, $19.95)