James Lee Burke

A Representation of Pure New Orleans Literature

While filming a Civil War movie in the swamps of Louisiana, the crew stumbles on the skeletal remains of a murder victim. When detective Dave Robicheaux shows up on the set, he immediately recognizes it as the remains of an African American man he saw fleeing white men back in 1957 and becomes fixated on the case at once. However, a criminal element who has been funding the movie has also come into New Orleans and brought with it a host of problems of its own, including the murder of a prostitute. Filled with atmospheric scenery, class and racial tensions, uniquely New Orleans characters, literal and figurative ghosts of the past, and vice of every color and texture, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST OF THE CONFEDERATE DEAD by James Lee Burke encapsulates every major theme common to New Orleans literature in a unique and thrilling package.

As with most southern gothic literature, Burke spends quite a bit of time on the scenery that is so integral to the setting of the novel. At Robicheaux’s home, the reader is greeted with the deep green scent of the Atchafalaya swamp and the sound of pecans falling from the trees in the breeze. When visiting the local crime lord, the reader is immersed in French decorations and marble floors common to upscale hotels in the French Quarter. Amidst the decaying homes and fading paint on shotgun houses, Robicheaux meets with con men and criminals. Even the most common of scenes are painted in colors that are unmistakably New Orleanian as Robicheaux states, “I could hear the tinkling of the Milk of Magnesia bottles and the silver crosses that he had hung all over the branches of a live oak…I could smell the unmistakable odor of chitterlings that had been burned in a pot” (Burke 153). When reading this scene, it is clear that it could happen in almost no other place than New Orleans.

Additionally, class and race play a huge role in Robicheaux’s investigation. Across the panoply of New Orleans literature, this theme seems to be ever-present, and it is no different in this book. When questioning a man who might have information about the case from 1957, the African American man replies, “Ain’t nobody interested back then, ain’t nobody interested now” (Burke 75). Due to the fact that the victim was black, poor, and possibly a criminal, a general feeling of apathy pervades the mystery of his death. Simply put, he was just another in a litany of dead black men.

Meanwhile, despite being a known crime lord, trafficking in everything from drugs to prostitution, Julie Balboni is seen as untouchable due to his financing of the movie shooting in the area and the wealth he holds. This juxtaposition between the two men paints a vivid picture of class distinction when it comes to the application of the law. A poor black man’s murder is not worth investigating and a crime lord is too rich and powerful to investigate. 
 Additionally, many of the people who populate the novel are distinctly New Orleanian, even if it is simply by virtue of them all being in such close proximity. For example, Burke describes the same street corners that are filled with school children in uniforms in the morning, holding a cadre of prostitutes in the evening. Con men are seen tipping their hats to Ursuline nuns. Even the heroic Detective Robicheaux attended school with his adversary, the crime lord Julie Balboni. The mingling of such extremes, while unique to some parts of the country is merely the business of the day on a New Orleans street.

The book is laden with figurative “ghosts,” specters of the past coming in the form of the murder from the fifties and the childhood relationship between Balboni and Robicheaux. Particularly the murder, which is later discovered to be a lynching, can be seen as a figurative ghost of the racial tensions of New Orleans’ past. The poem “Masque Macabre” highlights the fact that these specters of the past are always lurking just beneath the veneer of the city façade. Burke leverages this idea with the haunting image of bleached bones emerging from the swamp to be discovered by a modern film crew.

However, literal ghosts also haunt these pages as well. The crime from the fifties was also a staging area for Civil War troops. While investigating, Dave Robicheaux is commonly visited by the specters of dead troops and, in particular, the commanding general. They have discussions on the nature of crime and punishment and relate a tie from antebellum to modern morality. These ghostly apparitions link two common themes found in New Orleans literature. Firstly, the propensity to compare the past and the present is found in many works such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and a number of works of poetry. Additionally, the supernatural holds a special sway in the literature of the city, whether it be in the form of vampires, voodoo, or ghosts.

Lastly, but no less important to the texture of New Orleans literature, is the mingling of vice and virtue of the denizens of the novel. With the possible exception of Robicheaux and Balboni, there are no characters ruled entirely by either vice or virtue. The prostitutes protect one another in a code of conduct. The con men watch the streets to keep violence from boiling over. The witness to a murder, who risks life and limb by coming forward, is a womanizer and a drunk.

There are many elements that make a piece have a New Orleans feel. Sometimes it is the description of a piece of scenery that would fit in no other place in the world. Sometimes it is a character or the interaction of several characters that could only meet in a city like New Orleans. Sometimes it is a touch of the otherworldly. More often than not, it is the commingling of all of these elements to paint a picture that can only represent the city of New Orleans, as in the book IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD by James Lee Burke. Peppered with action, mystery, and a deep sense of location, it is a quintessential example of a book that could take place in no other location in the world and epitomizes the modern southern gothic novel.