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Visions in a Cajun Fog : IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD: By James Lee Burke : (Hyperion: $19.95; 344 pp.)

April 18, 1993|Fred Schruers | Schruers is living in New Orleans, completing a nonfiction book to be published by Pocket Books

"In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead" is the fifth of James Lee Burke's novels featuring the Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, a series that began in 1986 with "Neon Rain." The title gives fair warning that it is by far the most ambitious of the group. Burke's titles have in fact grown steadily more portentous (last year's outing was "A Stained White Radiance"), but they do tend to remind us that he's an eloquent observer of, among other things, the qualities of light.

Whether his avid followers will blithely track Burke and Robicheaux through this particular mist is an interesting question. With this book, Burke is bravely, if a bit narcissistically, taking the kinds of risks that ideally become landmarks in an author's growth. Burke's special distinction among his competitors stretching the boundaries of the detective genre is his mastery in describing sights, sounds and smells. If you listen to this book's second sentence--"The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night blooming jasmine, roses and new bamboo"--you realize that it is not facetious to suggest that the featured organ of perception throughout this story is Detective Robicheaux's most subtle nose.

These fine discriminations well fit his tendency to moralize. Certain smells signal corruption; one man's drunken breath is "like fermented fruit that had been cooked up for a long time in a stone jug." Robicheaux is a reformed drunk terribly afraid of the slippery slope back into that life. The tortured bingeing of the early Robicheaux has been replaced by the proselytizing (and scary flashbacks) of a dedicated AA member.

The tale begins at Burke's usual brisk pace; Robicheaux has stopped to pick up crawfish dinners on the main street of his little bayou town of New Iberia when a drunken driver in a lavender Cadillac caroms down the street. Inside is the movie star (plus girlfriend) who will become the detective's stumbling Virgil through the strange visual landscape alluded to in the title.

Where Robicheaux goes with this Texas-bred, 40ish Hollywood reprobate named Elrod Sykes is not hell but Purgatory. Sykes has seen the title's visions first: "Confederate infantry. One guy in particular, with gold epaulets on his coat. . . ." Although epaulets were the affectation of General Beauregard, we soon realize that this specter is John Bell Hood, the goggle-eyed Confederate general who led a disastrous rogue campaign in Tennessee. What unites good ol' boys Hood, Sykes and Robicheaux may be a death wish. But before we come face-to-face with the long-dead general, it's Robicheaux's friendship with Sykes that draws us in. It's a buddy story of the sort Burke relishes, where his right-thinking lead character runs up against a flawed man of action and passion he can't help but admire. In "A Stained White Radiance" it was Lyle Sonnier, a Vietnam tunnel rat turned televangelist. (Robicheaux is an anguishing Nam vet, which is by now convention rather than invention for heroes of his type. His musings on that, often adventitious in the earlier books, are useful here as triggers for the Civil War phantasms.)

The visit of a Hollywood production to a small town is itself hardly new (one among many versions is Robert Penn Warren's underappreciated "Flood"), but here it ushers in another Burke touchstone--the incursion of bad-ass mobsters from New Orleans, where Robicheaux began his saga as a city cop. Like oyster-scarfing Didi Gee, the fat Mafioso of "Neon Rain," one Julie (Baby Feet) Balboni is a gourmandising bayou greaseball who becomes chief villain in "Electric Mist." Although he's not named Bye-Bye like the real-life Steve Balboni of baseball fame, the man is a slugger Robicheaux played high school ball with. (And yes, Burke is still salting his work with pitching maxims.)

It's painful for a devoted Burke reader to feel himself turning sour on Robicheaux's distinguishing features, but the former, occasionally bad lieutenant some characters still know as Streak does remind us, often, that he's not only an incorruptible cop, an environmentalist and a pro-feminist, but also a savior of orphans (his adoptive daughter Alafair and second wife Bootsie charm us once again), defender/employer of oppressed blacks, and a man who doesn't abide cuss words around women and children. In fact, FBI Special Agent Rosie Gomez, who becomes co-investigator (and redundant buddy) in the plot, remains more an emblem of the detective's clenched-jaw liberalism than a person of substance. Happily, Burke remains his craftsman-like best with minor characters here. Baby Feet's bodyguard Cholo, the ex-con musician Sam (Hogman) Patin, the obstreperous but steadfast director Mikey Goldman, Sykes' ill-starred girlfriend Kelly, and a gallery of ruined jailers, hookers, cops and local honchos consistently churn us back into the flow of the slowly dovetailing plot.

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