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CONFEDERATE HAUNTS

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD

By James Lee Burke

Hyperion, $19.95

Reviewed by D. T. Max

There are two kinds of mystery writers _ those who really care about who committed the murder and those who use mysteries mostly as an excuse to tell us something about ourselves in a form we'll tolerate. James Lee Burke definitely belongs to the second group.

With Burke's latest, his sixth beautifully written mystery starring Dave Robicheaux, we're back in Cajun New Iberia Parish, La., perfect thriller territory _ a land of pecan trees, bayous and gars, drug running and cobalt skies. As with the earlier Robicheaux mysteries, you'll never guess who tortured and murdered a young local prostitute named Cherry LeBlanc because frankly anyone could have done it.

There's Robicheaux's childhood friend, wacko New Orleans gangster Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni, who has come to town to produce a movie and prey on local talent. And deviant former cop Murphy Doucet (never trust anyone in a mystery whose hobby is making miniature wooden models with a utility knife). Then there's the local soft drink distributor, Twinky LeMoyne, who has that phoney New South attitude Robicheaux hates. Robicheaux's partner-on-the-take, Lou Girard, and boozie delusional actor Elrod Sykes are also candidates. I'd only exclude Robicheaux's own family _ his third wife Bootsie and his adopted immigrant daughter Alafair _ because women are murderees not murderers in Robicheaux's world.

Robicheaux is now in his third year in the New Iberia parish, his memories of Vietnam, his time on the New Orleans homicide squad, and finally the murder of his second wife Annie, so horrifyingly recorded in Heaven's Prisoners, beginning to fade. Only two things are constant in Robicheaux's life: the specter of the alcoholism that nearly destroyed his life _ which he fights by attending AA meetings _ and the interference of higher-ups when things start to rock, which he fights by dusting off the trusty .45 and taking things into his own hands.

Robicheaux of course wants to investigate the murder of LeBlanc, whom no one else gives a damn about. And he thinks the killing ties in to a long-ago crime he knows people in this racist state care even less about because the victim was black: the murder of a prisoner in 1957 whose body the shifting sands of the bayous have chosen to reveal in time for the unsteady Elrod Sykes to stumble on it. In the misty marshes of New Iberia, Sykes is also seeing old Confederate soldiers, and soon Robicheaux, whose hold on reality is always tenuous, is seeing them too.

Goaded on by the dead Confederates, blocked by the Chamber of Commerce and aided by an FBI agent named Rosie Gomez, who specializes in sex crimes, Robicheaux investigates. Now, investigating a serial killer for Robicheaux is not really the process of dusting for fingerprints and running psychological profiles through the mainframe. It's mostly sticking the .45 in some minor hood's mouth and telling him that if he doesn't talk, he'll find his day suddenly worsening. So talk _ and talk in picturesque New Orleans slang _ they generally do, which leads Robicheaux on to the next hood who needs a gun barrel in his mouth to improve his memory. Ultimately a murderer appears, though he rarely stays healthy enough to stand trial.

The Robicheaux mysteries, predictable as they are, are great to read for a number of reasons. There's the writing, which is probably the best going among mystery writers. The weather, all those hurricanes and eight-color sunsets, is almost a character in itself. And there's the Cajun accents, culture and food (In Electric Mist I counted four stops for dirty rice, as many as you would find donut breaks in a New York police procedural). Burke begins this one: "The sky had gone black at sunset . . . and the air was cool now, laced with light rain . . . night-blooming jasmine, roses and new bamboo. I was about to stop my truck at Del's and pick up three crawfish dinners to go when a lavender Cadillac fishtailed out of a side street . . ."

But my own reason for loving these books is that Robicheaux is crazier and possibly more dangerous than the people he pursues, and he knows it. Most mystery writers behave as if murder were the exception, while Burke's novels are as violent as the real world. Bodies literally fall from the sky, float in with the tide, and come up from the earth. So the fight here is not good guys against bad but Robicheaux sane versus Robicheaux cracked. This is a man under pressure. For one thing there are those descriptions of mutilated victims that are just a bit too caressing _ you can feel him resisting putting himself in the driver's seat. And then one whiff of alcohol, one wrong word, look, or touch on his shoulder and he's off, blowing apart suspects with his dum-dum bullets, kidnapping witnesses and planting evidence.

And they give this guy a gun, a gold shield and a pension too.

D. T. Max is a writer living in New York.

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