In 'Electric Mist,' a powerful crime novel

April 22, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

"Fecund," variously defined as fertile, teeming and fruitful, seems to appear at least once somewhere in the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke. Finding it confirms you're in the land of south Louisiana. Even if you've never been there before, Mr. Burke's Cajun country feels like home.

"Fecund" appears on the first page of Mr. Burke's latest, "In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead." Detective Robicheaux, off-duty from a day of searching for and finding a 19-year-old murder victim, describes the town of New Iberia after a sunset storm off the Gulf of Mexico. "The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses, and new bamboo."

All we need is a nutria crying in the marsh, but that will come later.

"Electric Mist" is Mr. Burke's sixth Robicheaux crime novel and, ithis isn't his best, then "A Morning for Flamingos," No. 4 in the series, may move into a category of a personal favorite severely threatened.

All the Robicheaux books feature the beautiful you-are-there description, exotic titles and sense of place. The first, published in 1987, was "The Neon Rain," followed by "Heaven's Prisoners," "Black Cherry Blues," "Flamingos," "A Stained White Radiance," and now, "Electric Mist."

I discovered James Lee Burke relatively late, trying "Heaven's Prisoners" after the hoopla last year on publication of "Radiance." Since exhausting all of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowes some years ago, nothing in the mystery genre had seemed very enticing.

Until Mr. Burke.

In "Electric Mist," he steps beyond genre boundaries into neliterary territory. The result is entertaining, satisfying, thought-provoking -- without losing any of the plot, violence and action for which he justifiably is known.

In "Electric Mist," Robicheaux, a lieutenant with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department, still runs the bayou bait shop of previous novels. He also tries to have a life with his wife Bootsie, adopted daughter Alafair, an appaloosa named Tex and a three-legged raccoon called Tripod.

The basic plot centers on a series of rape/murders of younprostitutes and the possible connection of a New Orleans mob boss who returns to Iberia Parish to be co-producer of a Civil War movie. The book works well on that level and probably still would have succeeded with fans had he kept it there.

Simply having Robicheaux deal with more of the worst sort of scum that can emerge from the bayous and the seamiest parts of neighboring New Orleans is great entertainment on its own. You still would have had summer rain dripping off pecan trees, po-boy sandwiches, Dr. Pepper over crushed ice, the heat and humidity of Atchafalaya Swamp, the land after a storm.

But he adds other layers, giving the book more depth and a haunting quality. They include an unsolved 35-year-old homicide, female FBI agent who challenges the way Robicheaux thinks, and, especially, conversations with Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, who appears in the mist of the bayous. Why is Hood here? Is he real? Even if you don't believe in ghosts, you may want to after "Electric Mist."

Burke keeps the plot boiling with an array of characters sufficiently complex to make you care about them, even some despicable ones.

Hyperion, his publisher, is promoting "Electric Mist" as a novel "redefining the genre." And, indeed, a Civil War vision seldom plays a key role in your typical crime novel.

Regardless, "Electric Mist" stands fine on its own, all the way to a final surprise in the epilogue.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead."

Author: James Lee Burke.

Publisher: Hyperion.

Length, price: 344 pages, $19.95.

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