A Winding Road To Mystery -- Judith Smith-Levin's Experiences As A Police Officer And Bookstore Owner Brought Her To Current Career

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"Hoodoo Man" Judith Smith-Levin will autograph "The Hoodoo Man" at 7 p.m. Monday at University Book Store in Bellevue (206-632-9500). -------------------------------

Add Judith Smith-Levin to the growing ranks of mystery writers who live in the Seattle area. "What is it about all the mystery writers who live around here?" she mused during a recent conversation from her home on Bainbridge Island. "Maybe it's something in the water."

Add Smith-Levin also to the much smaller ranks of African-American mystery writers. Her two books, "Do Not Go Gently" and the recent "The Hoodoo Man" (Ballantine, $5.99), focus on homicide detective Starletta Duvall, who works the streets of a fictional Massachusetts town.

Duvall is an appealing character, intelligent and funny and not particularly inclined to taking grief from anyone. The books she stars in are tasty blends of gritty police procedurals with more light-hearted subplots involving Duvall's romantic affairs: "Why can't I combine them?" Smith-Levin sensibly asks. "They're cops, they have lives."

"The Hoodoo Man" concerns the murder of Desmond St. John, a voodoo priest who has grown wealthy by selling his magic potions. He's found bound to his bed, with six bullet holes forming a cross on his body. Suspicion falls on a troubled young man, recently out of prison for the massacre of his own family. Duvall, however, isn't convinced of the young man's guilt.

The idea for the book, Smith-Levin says, came to her through childhood memories and music. "I was born and raised in Chicago, but both my parents were from the South. They were always talking about people putting spells on other people and so on, so that was always buried in the back of my mind."

At the same time, Smith-Levin was inspired by Eric Clapton's version of the Junior Wells song "The Hoodoo Man Blues." One of its lines is "Somebody hoodooed the hoodoo man."

"That got me thinking," Smith-Levin says. "What if you had an authentic voodoo-man priest, a guy that people thought was immortal, and somebody killed him?"

Smith-Levin has been writing in various capacities since she was a teenager. But it was two nonwriting jobs - as police officer and owner of a mystery bookstore - that helped shape her current career.

As a single mother and police reporter in Worcester, Mass., in the early 1970s, Smith-Levin became vocal about the force's lack of women and African Americans. "I was basically dared to take the job" of policewoman, she says, by a captain who, in effect, told her to put up or shut up.

After earning the Commonwealth's fourth-highest score on the exam, she became the department's first black, female, uniformed police officer. "I figured it'd give me something to write about. But I got hooked - it's a very exciting job, because you don't know from one minute to the next what's going to happen."

Smith-Levin spent several years on the force and received two commendations for bravery. But she quit because she was becoming increasingly alienated from the non-cop world. "It was making me crazy. You can't talk to your family about (police business), saying `Hey, today we found some guy who'd been on the floor of his house for two weeks and we shoveled him up.' "

The next move was to California, where she sold a screenplay and used the proceeds to buy a bookstore in Carmel. She turned it into a mystery bookstore, and the books she sold inspired her to try her hand at a mystery.

She found it cathartic to fictionalize her own experiences as a policewoman, especially those involving personal prejudice. "It's no fun being a pioneer; I had too much anger." Smith-Levin uses the example of another cop who "cleaned" his gun while pointing it at the back of her head. "But with Starletta, I could get it all out. She was able to do things I couldn't do - she broke the guy's nose." ------------------------------- QUICK FACT

Island appeal Judith Smith-Levin visited Bainbridge Island on vacation in 1995 and liked it so well that she moved here: "I think I'm here for the duration." She is working on "Green Money," the third adventure of Starletta Duvall, due out next year.