In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, James Lee Burke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011 (my Avon edition, 1994).
Summary: Investigation of multiple rapes and murders, and a murder from 1957 confront Robicheaux with dark figures from his past, and pose a threat to all he holds dear.
If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction about rural Louisiana, he might have produced this book. I didn’t expect to encounter magical realism in this, the sixth of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. It was strange, but for me it worked better than some of the Marquez I have read. The magical realism part has to do with dreams or waking visions of the Confederate dead (hence the title), appearing first to an oft-drunk movie actor, Elrod Sykes, and then to Robicheaux, who is now stone-cold sober. Robicheaux even has conversations with General John Bell Hood, who seems to be his version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speaking in metaphors and riddles that offer clues and sometimes warnings.
The story begins with a gruesome kidnapping-rape-murder of a young woman. While investigating the murder, Robicheaux pulls over a drunken Elrod Sykes, who subsequently proceeds to tell him a story of seeing Confederate soldiers in the Atchafalaya swamp where he is being filmed by a movie company that has more or less taken over Robicheaux’s New Iberia (in more ways than one). He also tells him of finding a dead body in chains. It turns out this is no drunken illusion. The body is near a location where Robicheaux had witnessed a murder of a black prisoner in chains — in 1957 — reported but dismissed by the authorities.
He’s joined in the investigation by an F.B.I investigator, Rosie Gomez, partly because of the kidnapping element (and evidence of more murders), but also because of the presence of Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, an investor in the film, who has returned from the New Orleans underworld to New Iberia, where his family once controlled organized crime. He and Robicheaux were also once classmates, and baseball team mates. He has a group of “associates” including his consigliere, Chollo, the movie security guy, Murphy Doucet, a former cop, and Twinky LeMoyne, Doucet’s partner.
In an unlikely turn of events, Sykes ends up living with Robicheaux after his girlfriend, Kelly is shot. He quickly becomes a favorite with Bootsie, Dave’s wife, and his daughter Alafair, and manages to discover a new-found sobriety. Robicheaux, however, as he investigates Balboni and his connections falls out of favor with the townsfolk, and then is set up taking the fall for a murder of an unarmed prostitute. Evidence exonerates him but then another murder of an old detective friend comes closer to home. Throughout, he continues to see Hood and his soldiers at key turning points. The closer he gets to the killer he seeks, and the solution to the 1957 murder he witnessed, the closer danger comes to him until an exciting conclusion.
One of the qualities of Burke’s work is his descriptive power to create an atmosphere, in which you feel the humidity, smell the trees, the ozone of the lightning, the fetid smells of the swamps. I’ve never been to that part of the country but I felt like I was there as I read. Robicheaux is a fascinating character–a Vietnam vet with troubled memories, a reformed alcoholic, someone who carries troubled memories and lives in an uneasy truce with them, who has a strong sense of rectitude, and yet will bend the rules of evidence and interrogation in pursuit of his ends.
This was my first Robicheaux novel, picked because of a recommendation of a bookseller, and the intriguing title as much as anything. Burke’s writing, and Robicheaux’s character were good enough that I am ready to come back for more.