“Ghosts, Demons, or the DTs?:
The Supernatural in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux Series,”
James Lee Burke’s detective series featuring Dave Robicheaux is undoubtedly an exemplar of hard-boiled detective fiction, with its gritty realism, police procedural elements, generically consistent hard-boiled dick, sordid settings, and consistently important elements of the supernatural. Except, of course, the supernatural is verboten in detective fiction, at least in the more conventional definition, a rather long standing convention. Such classic detectives Rulemasters as S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox dismiss any supernatural elements as a matter of course. Says Van Dine:
The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances [sic], crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio (Van Dine).
Were an early author of detective fiction to allow the supernatural, one might think that Knox, a Roman Catholic priest, might possibly be more accommodating, but rather the reverse is true. Knox is even more concise: His “Ten Commandments” (or "Decalogue") states quite briefly: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course” (Ronald Knox’s).
Naturally, many of these rules have been repeatedly broken, and many are outdated. “No Chinaman must figure in the story,” with its racist and xenophobic twinge has been unacceptable for quite a while. Sidekicks (the stupid friend of the detective) have evolved considerably since Watson, technology and its attendant complexities figure strongly in contemporary detective fiction (with attendant explanations), detectives do commit the crimes, etc. etc. And while the supernatural presence in detective fiction has increased, particularly in such authors as John Connolly, it is still far from an accepted convention.1 Since detective fiction is a rational genre, this is unsurprising. The reader can compete with any number of suspects, “unbreakable” alibis, ingenious time-tables, twisting and turning plots, etc., but bringing the supernatural in to play does indeed seem to be an unfair stratagem, not to mention subverting the rational element so important to detective fiction.
If there is no room for the supernatural in classic detective fiction, then the very conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction, with its emphasis on the hard-boiled hero, bare-knuckled realism, its hard-headed dialogue, mean streets, generally sordid crimes, and political corruption would seem to negate even the bare suggestion of the supernatural, let alone its presence. Realism, after all, is diametrically opposed to fantasy, into which texts dealing with the supernatural usually fall. Regardless of how realistically rendered supernatural characters are, they do not fall within the bounds of Realism, which, as William Dean Howells states, is “. . nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.”2. Add Amy Kaplan’s view of Realism as a "strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change" (ix)3 and it is easy to see that the supernatural has no place in detective fiction. Except of course that rules are made to be broken, genre-bending happens frequently, and the supernatural does appear in Burke’s very realistic fictions.
The hard-boiled detective genre features a private detective or investigator on the fringes of urban society, who hunts down and captures criminals, often in opposition to such institutions of power as the police department, City Hall, and the influential upper class. In Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, John G. Cawelti’s “The Hard-Boiled Detective” notes several characteristics of the hard-boiled detective story: “the special role of the modern city as background” . . “apparent from the very beginning” (140). He further notes that “A gleaming and deceptive façade hides a world of exploitation and criminality . . .” Certainly Burke’s often lyrical prose both masks and lays bare the corruption. Every novel mentions the Vieux Carre’s beautiful façade and underlying sordidity. Cawelti also notes that, unlike the classic or “Golden Age” detective fiction, that the puzzle is subordinated to the quest for justice, certainly a touchstone in Robicheaux’s world view; the hard-boiled substitutes a “pattern of intimidation and temptation of the hero for the wavering finger of suspicion”(142) Once again, this is an important motif in Burke’s works. Add the “personal moral stance” which Cawelti sees as essential and which recurs time and time again in the Robicheaux series, the extreme levels of violence, the constant pressure on Robicheaux to avoid upsetting the old rich families, generally by letting old crimes lie, Dave’s marginalized status within his department and culture - how many times do his colleagues assume he did indeed do the crime for which he does a short amount of time, or believe that he has fallen off the wagon, for example, or is just plain crazy - and Burke’s hard-boiled detective credentials are impeccable. And certainly Dave Robicheaux hunts down and captures criminals – in every single book, often outside the confines of the department, in fact, often in direct opposition to the sheriff’s orders. Are these novels hard-boiled detective fiction? Let me count the ways! Except, of course, for the vexing problem of the supernatural.
While sub-genres [in detective fiction] are numerous, the outcome remains the same. The entire point of the novels is to expose and capture the murderer, thus making society both more ordered and safer. Whether it is the Vicar’s parlour or the “mean streets” is beside the essential point. Detective novels differ materially in setting, character, crime, and a myriad of other conventions, but the conventional movement of the genre is towards order, however battered or compromised.
As Thomas Roberts point out in An Aesthetic of Junk Fiction, “We think of the detective genre as the most reassuring of all genres. A crime is committed, but the perpetrator, however clever, is identified - in every single story.” (140). He further notes:
The experienced truth of [ . . .] all vernacular genres is that the stories are all twists and sparks of interest. We know what we are getting when we buy a paperback. [. . . . ]. When people buy [the Poisoned Chocolates Case] it is not because of their interest in chocolates [ . . .] they are buying it because they have been assured that the novel comes from the genre of the tale of detection, and because they can predict that the writer used the classic pattern for that type (162-4).
As Roberts so cogently points out, readers enjoy the departure, the twist from the expected generic conventions, as such departures add interest. A text which plays with the conventions within a particular genre adds to the interest. The reading success of such a genre depends on the reader’s ability to follow the action, see the conflict resolved, and be reassured that the outcome will restore societal order. For the more convention-bound, non-genre-bending reader, the presence of the supernatural does not buttress societal order, or at least the man-made construct of social order. The intrusion of the supernatural, whether in its good or evil form, undercuts the ability of human beings to solve problems and feel in control of their own destinies. If we must count on the supernatural to restore order, after all, then what is the point of a detective in the first place? When Sal Angelo, for example, handcuffs Dave and sets out to bring Legion to justice, Robicheaux is very nearly reduced to a laughable nonentity. Throwing supernatural into the mix, while it may or may not aid in capturing criminals, subverts the rational basis for this fiction, distancing a reader who likes the logic and rationality of detective fiction. It would not be surprising if avid readers of detective fiction are not fans of either the fantastic or the horrific, as both eschew the rational and order in favor of events that cannot happen in the natural world. Whether one genre is superior to the other, whether fantasy requires, in Stephen King’s terms, “a muscular intellectual act” of the imagination to engage in, as opposed to the ability to follow a logical sequence of events is relatively unimportant in terms of affect on the reader, who must balance two opposing sets of generic conventions (104). The imposition of the supernatural, it seems to me, could well have a negative effect on these readers, particularly since a binary opposition between the explicable/inexplicable, rational/irrational, immediately springs into being. Adding the supernatural takes the control out of man’s hands, specifically out of the hard-boiled detective’s control. While the hard-boiled detective may often be a marginalized figure, occupying the fringes of society, he is still a human being and not some inexplicable force. Since his main duty is to restore societal order, and the supernatural, is, ipso facto, outside the natural order of events, the intrusion of the supernatural subverts the already marginalized detective, and by so doing results in an “against the grain” reading experience, an en experience that calls the conventions of detective fiction into question. A reader who does not mind genre-bending, and who is not convention bound, may well accept the presence of the supernatural And yet, the supernatural is an active presence in many of the Robicheaux novels. Or is it?
Tvetsan Tudorov, discussing the genre of the fantastic as being wide ranging, notes that the continuum covers the uncanny through the marvelous, through the disturbing to the accepted presence of the fantastic as mundane. In his chart outlining the position of the fantastic, he places the uncanny - that fiction that has disturbing elements that are not supernatural in nature to the left side of his chart4. As he points out, this a very amorphous classification, which shades into mainstream or classical literature. To the right side of his chart lies the territory of the marvelous, the best example of which are faerie tales, in which the marvelous, i.e. talking wolves, magic, spells, a hundred years of sleep, etc. are accepted as natural and ordinary. But between these main categories lie those texts where either the reader or the character or sometimes both, are unsure of whether or not the supernatural is in play. He defines the most important component of the genre of fantastic literature as being comprised of the hesitation between a natural explanation and a supernatural one. It is, Tudorov claims, in that hesitation, and in that hesitation alone, however short or prolonged, that the fantastic resides5. In other words, when the hapless reader cannot come to a conclusion as to the presence of the supernatural, we have a hesitation. One may or may not like Tolkien, for example, but Elves, wizards, Orcs, etc. undoubtedly exist in Middle Earth. The same may apply to Stephen King, but if King has a vampire or a werewolf in his fiction, it is, by God! a vampire or a werewolf and not a metaphoric anything. To look at an example of a hesitation, take the presence of General John Bell Hood in the novel In the Electric Mists With Confederate Dead; Hood may be a supernatural [presence, or he may be a metaphor for Dave’s beliefs. We can never actually be sure, as every intrusion has a counterpoint, so to speak. And therein lies the hesitation; one can never be sure that the supernatural really is the supernatural and not some more or less natural phenomenon. It is this aspect of the fantastic, this hesitation, acknowledged but unresolved, which runs through many of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels from its more marginal presence through novels in which the supernatural is the controlling motif. If the hesitation is the structural element
The three functional categories of the supernatural are: prophetic dreams and devices, the supernatural as minatory/didactic, and the appearance of a “guardian angel” type figure who functions to protect Dave from his enemies. The idea of salvation or redemption is implicit in the last category, as well as in the first two categories, although less significantly. The visions and dreams aid Dave in proving himself as a good character, particularly when Annie or his father are in the dream, and General John Bell Hood functions to warn Robicheaux of using the ends to justify the means, an action to which Dave is prone. All of these categories also function as an intrusion into the rational world. All of them are put into play and simultaneously brought into question. While some of the supernatural is incidental, more for atmosphere than anything else, and some is rather marginal, as in such novels as A Morning for Flamingoes, A Stained White Radiance, and Last Streetcar to Elysian Fields, the hesitation always exists in some form. And while there is both the supernatural and an element of hesitation, the supernatural is not the driving force in these novels. But in Black Cherry Blues, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, Burning Angel, Joli Blon’s Bounce, and The Tin Roof Blow Down, the supernatural is the controlling motif and integral to the plot.
In many of the novels, the supernatural is easy enough to dismiss. Except of course for the times that more is going on than can be accounted for as a natural reaction, and we hesitate over the line between the natural and the supernatural. When the supernatural functions in a marginal or atmospheric fashion, a reader might well believe that the supernatural does not greatly affect the response to the book. That voodoo, palmistry, tarot, “throwing the bones,” laying a gris-gris, etc., figure in the novels is not, as far as the actual presence of the supernatural, extremely significant: the setting, after all, is southern Louisiana, New Iberia and New Orleans in particular, and such local color effects would be missed if they were not present. Anyone who has been to New Orleans cannot fail to have noticed the importance of the supernatural aura cast over the city. This is, after all, a city where some tourists check the cemeteries out with the same interest with which others check out Bourbon Street and the restaurant scene. Thus, the more marginal references to the supernatural are important in terms of both setting the atmosphere and establishing Dave Robicheaux’s attitude toward the supernatural, which is decidedly mixed.
In A Morning for Flamingoes, for example, Gros Mama Goula has a reputation as a traiteur (a Cajun faith healer) and a ju-ju woman who has the power to put a gris-gris or hex upon those who displease her.6 While both Tee Beau and Dorothea believe in her powers implicitly, Dave Robicheaux dismisses her as a “ju ju con woman (91) and “a big black gas bag” who “jerks your people around with a lot of superstition that goes back to the islands, back to the slave days”(225). Dave discards Tee Beau’s offer of a dime on a red thread as protection, extended after Tee Beau tells him that Goula has put a gris-gris on Dave himself. In fact, Dave breaks the thread and uses the dime in a parking meter. And that would seem to be that, as nothing happens to Dave. His action is strictly in accordance with the behaviour of a hard-boiled police officer – can one imagine Spade or Marlowe quaking in fear of a gris-gris?
However, Gros Mama Goula not only tells Dorothea that her boyfriend Tee Beau, who has been convicted of murder will be fine and will be back some day, she also accurately predicts that the psychopathic Jimmie Lee Boggs will die in New Orleans “[I]n a black room with lightning jumping all over it”(40). Boggs does indeed die in a steel engine room, and the sparks flying around are the sparks from the bullets Robicheaux fires at him, although the actual cause of death is drowning. Thus, even in the more minor instances of the supernatural we have the hesitation: is Mama Goula a conjure woman with the power to tell the future? Or is she, as Robicheaux believes, a con woman? Although both Tee Beau and Dorothea believe that Hippolyte Broussard, the man who Tee Beau is accused of murdering dies because Goula put a gris-gris on him, the proof being that large black snakes crawled out of his grave, the only gris-gris, snake or otherwise, actually involved was the black oily rag Goula stuffed down his throat to suffocate him, which calls her successful prophecies somewhat, but not entirely, into disrepute. Dave remains unconvinced of the power of curses, a pattern that holds through many of the novels.
In the minor supernatural motif in Burning Angel, the gris-gris surfaces again. Luke Fontenot claims that his Aunt Bertie has put a gris-gris on Moleen Bertrand, which she cannot remove; Robicheaux’s immediate and consistent reaction is to scoff: “That’s superstition” (288). Luke’s aunt, Bertha Fontenot throws pig bones over and over and claims she sees two deaths in them. One is Moleen Bertrand, her daughter Ruthie Jean’s secret lover, but she does not know the identity of the other, who turns out to be her own daughter. She claims that she sees that Moleen will die because of past events, including a child he ran down on the road when he was drunk; she also claims that the ghosts of dead soldiers haunt him. “Moleen gonna die. Except there’s two bones in the middle of the circle. Somebody going wit’ him” (290). Dave is inclined, as he usually is, to dismiss Luke and Bertha’s concerns. Her prophecies, however, are absolutely correct. Ruthie Jean and Moleen are found suffocated in an apartment on the ragged edge of the French Quarter. Ruthie Jean has killed him and then committed suicide. Dave does not believe in gris-gris or ju-ju women, but it is hard to explain how Bertha knows that two deaths will occur, or that Moleen ran the child down in the first place, especially since not only did the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s department originally suspect Julia, Moleen Bertrand’s wife of the crime, the case has been closed for lack of eyewitnesses for some time. In an apparently meaningless reaction, Dave takes Helen Soileau to ride on “the great iron streetcar from the year 1910. . . into a long tunnel of trees and heliographic light that was like tumbling through the bottom of a green well, to a place, where, perhaps, the confines of reason and predictability had little application” (336). Again, we have the hesitation in the simple word “perhaps.” In folklore, truth is found at the bottom of wells; perhaps Robicheaux sees truth in the midst of superstition? From almost any way a reader views it, the intrusion of validated superstition and “black magic” is hard to pin down.7
In A Stained White Radiance, Lyle Sonnier, a fundamentalist preacher whom Dave views as a charlatan, a man who purveys salvation to the ignorant for money, admits that much of what he does is, indeed phony. He details many of the ways in which he and his mentor, the Reverend Jimmy Bob Clock , separate the illiterate poor from their money. But when he has spoken to Dave, and is leaving, he tells him Bootsie has lupus, something he would have no way to know. Later, when Dave comes to him in the aftermath of a dream in which Bootsie’s lupus is running rampant, Lyle recounts healing an old black woman through the power of God because he could not bear to break her faith in God. He prays, not for himself, but that God heal her so her faith will not be broken. He also tells Dave he cannot heal Bootsie because Dave has come to him, not with faith, but for magic. Again, we are torn. Did Lyle somehow know that Bootsie had lupus? Did he indeed cure the old woman, not through his power but through God’s? Or is he lying about the woman? It is far from impossible that he has heard about Bootsie’s disease. This is, after all, small town territory of the South. It is not in the least unlikely that word has leaked out and Lyle has heard about it. Why will he not lay hands on Bootsie? When Dave says, “Then you are a charlatan,” Lyle recounts the highly unflattering, and perhaps even truthful tale recounted above. And yet, he believes that God healed the old woman. But Burke sets each vignette up in such a way that we usually teeter on the edge of belief or unbelief through most of the novels. This hesitation, this teetering on the knife edge of disbelief, is characteristic of the use of the supernatural in Burke’s work.
Dave, for example, often hears, or thinks he hears, the voices of his beloved dead, particularly when he is in places that recall them. It is hard to see this as anything more than a motif that fills out his character. When he is trying to prove himself innocent of murder in Black Cherry Blues, for example, he hears the voice of his deceased wife, Annie, as well as his father, telling him that everything will be OK, and it is easy enough to dismiss this as wishful thinking. What would one expect from these voices? Condemnation?
In Last Street Car to Elysian Fields after Bootsie has died from lupus, Dave sits in the cemetery by her grave, often on a daily basis. When he claims he hears her voice, it is easy to dismiss it as of little, if any, consequence. After all, he is sitting alone, with no one to say or not say that the voice was real. Moreover, he misses Bootsie terribly. What reader would think twice if he thinks he hears her voice, or even reproduces her voice in his mind, willfully trying to call her back? But even in these trifling instances, Todorov’s hesitation appears.
Dave has lit a candle at Bootsie’s tomb, and sees two pelicans, birds he has never seen so far inland. Then, he says, “I did something that made me wonder about the level of my sanity. I rose from the steel bench I was sitting on, pointing at the two birds and said, ‘Take a look, Boots. These guys were almost extinct a few years ago. They’re beautiful.’” (Last 417). Nothing much to this sentimental incursion, one might think. Who might not talk to his dead wife? A scene from John Ford’s film She Wore A Yellow Ribbon comes to mind. Captain Nathan Brittles goes out to his dead wife Mary’s neatly kept grave, waters the flowers he plants there and “reports” on the doings on the cavalry post. I doubt any one would think the supernatural in any form inhabits this scene. And Robicheaux’s actions, speaking to the much beloved dead, are very much the same. However, a compact car that Dave has paid no attention to parks: “’Dave’! a voice said as audibly as a voice speaking to you on the edge of sleep, as defined as a stick snapping inside the eardrum” (Last 420). Dave moves just in time to miss a bullet. He gives chase unsuccessfully, returns to the grave and says:
I heard your voice . . .
But there was no reply.
I don’t care who knows it, either. That was your voice, Boots, I said.
Then I said a prayer for her and one for me and headed back for the truck, wishing the pelicans had not gone.
Don’t worry. They’ll be back. One of these days when you least expect it, you’ll see them on Bayou Teche, she said.
I turned around, my jaw hanging, the clouds blooming with electricity that made no sound (Last 421).
The choices here among supernatural intervention, coincidence, and willing disbelief are hard to make. On the one hand, it is reasonable to accept that Robicheaux would indeed know his dead wife’s voice. Who better? On the other hand, consider that her voice is as audible as “a voice speaking to you on the edge of sleep . .” Just how audible is that? The edge of sleep is liminal territory, and therefore hard to define. One could as easily be dreaming as actually hear a voice. Who has not had the experience of being jerked abruptly from sleep and been uncertain what awakened us? Or had a daydream or dream so vivid that we are unable to differentiate between what is real and what is part of the dream? And considering that Robicheaux himself goes back and forth about whether what happens in his dreams is real or not, the reader can well teeter on the knife edge of hesitation. Nor are there any witnesses; furthermore, he has set up an almost seance-like atmosphere, which would make belief in voices from the grave easy, if not inevitable. Dave himself accepts that people will not believe him. At the end of the novel, he awaits the return of the pelicans, commenting that
“ . . . sometimes in the flapping of wings over head I thought I heard Bootsie’s voice [. . .] But I am sure one fine day [. . .] the pelicans will return to Bayou Teche, and in the meantime I share my thoughts about them with no one [ . . ]“(464-5).
Once again, Todorov’s premise that the hesitation, the often irresolvable hesitation between the mundane and the supernatural comes into play. Does Dave indeed hear a voice beyond the grave which saves him from death and/or despair, or is it his finely tuned cop instincts that have kept him alive for almost three decades, or is it simple coincidence?
In at least five novels, Black Cherry Blues, In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead, Burning Angel, Joli Blon’s Bounce and Tin Roof Blow Down, the supernatural is the controlling motif and integral to the plot, although, again, the hesitation between natural and supernatural obtrudes.
In Black Cherry Blues, the supernatural has an ongoing presence in the form of dreams, which have a dual function: they both reassure Dave of his innocence and eventually aid him in solving the brutal murder of which he has been accused and for which he has been indicted and will stand trial. Since he has indeed beaten both Daltrine Vidry and Harry Mapes for threatening his daughter, when Vidrine is found disemboweled, Dave is arrested. The material evidence, including a witness, is substantial, and as an alcoholic and violent ex-cop, his claims of innocence are entirely disregarded. He leaves New Iberia and relocates temporarily to Great Falls, Montana, hoping to prove his innocence by solving the murder of Daltrine Vidrine. As time runs out and his trial approaches, he grows increasingly desperate, as would any man who is headed for a long term in Angola for a crime he did not commit but of which he cannot prove himself innocent. During Dave’s increasingly frustrating and unsuccessful investigation, both Annie and his father visit him in dreams and he awakens with the feeling that they are trying to tell him something he does not understand. “‘You do it where it soft,’ he [Al Robicheaux] said, ‘Ain’t you learned nothing from your old man?’” (218). Although Dave understands the dream is important, he cannot figure out what the message is. Unable to make any progress whatsoever in proving his innocence, or at least casting doubt sufficient on his guilt, Dave is contemplating becoming a permanent fugitive. Before he is forced to take this step, however, he solves a long standing murder and proves himself innocent of a capital crimes charge through a dream. Darlene American Horse, a murder victim herself, indicates the site of her brother’s murder to him.
I saw her look first at me from the overhand of the cliff, then squat on her moccasins by a spring that leaked out of rocks into a tea-colored stream. She put her hands into the [. . .] mud and began to smear it on her face. She looked at me again [ . . .] her cheeks smeared with mud . . .(292)
Dave leaps out of sleep into an epiphany, suddenly understanding what the dreams mean. He finds the spring, and realizes what Annie, his father and Darlene have been trying to tell him. Darlene’s brother Clayton Desmarteau and his cousin were murdered in winter and had to have been buried somewhere where the ground was soft, thus neatly linking Big Al’s comment, and Darlene’s pantomime. When he finds the tea-colored stream, he also finds the shriveled corpses of two murdered Native Americans and a 7.62 millimeter cartridge, the same cartridge that killed Vidrine. Implicating Mapes as the murderer of the two Native Americans casts sufficient doubt on Dave’s guilt to allow for a dismissal of the charges against him.
Once again, however, we can dance on the knife edge of hesitation. It is far easier to believe that dreams function as the clearing house of the brain than to believe that Dave is receiving ghostly clues from no less than three dead people. And it is quite true that the dreams that Dave has featuring Annie, his father and Darlene American Horse could well be nothing more than mental housecleaning. Arguing against the presence of the supernatural, Dave has always looked to the past and the dead for his validation and consolation. Whether the voice is Annie’s voice, or Dave’s conjuration of that voice, it is unlikely that he will not receive confirmation of his essentially good character. It is also entirely possible that what Dave thinks of as dreams sent by the dead are actually his unconscious brain sifting information he has gathered and weaving it into a coherent narrative. He has been investigating Mapes tirelessly, walking the area where the two missing Native Americans’ car was found abandoned, and talking to everyone who will talk to him; moreover, he believes that Darlene was murdered because someone thought she knew something incriminating. It is not at all unlikely that Dave is too highly wrought up to realize the significance of what he sees and hears. In his sleep, though, the brain is free to play its mental games. Once all the clues have fallen into place, Dave, who is an excellent detective, knows where to go to find the corpses. This interpretation, would, of course, satisfy the detective convention bound reader, and it is quite defensible. And yet, Burke is very specific concerning the dream and particularly Darlene American Horse’s role in it. Her image, painting her face with mud in winter and staring at him while she does so, appearing in her funeral clothes, is what triggers Dave’s discovery of the graves. Considering the importance of visions and dreams in Native American culture, the fact that Dave sees her in her funeral wear, lends more significance to the dream than a simple attempt by the brain to impose order. The hesitation occurs because this could be no more than a garden variety dream.
And so the reader is left wondering: Do Dave’s dead wives, Annie and Bootsie, come back to him as comforting, albeit ghostly, presences? Does Dave actually converse with Annie? Or does Dave, desperately missing Annie, imagine her presence? Annie tells him that it is harder and harder for her to come back. Since Dave is in Montana and Annie’s corporeal presence, wherever her spirit may be, is buried elsewhere, this seems to indicate the supernatural. Or is it Dave who lets her go as he needs her memory less? Who is to say whether Darlene American Horse sent him a dream to show where her dead brother was buried or whether Dave’s unconscious put the train of events together from bits and pieces? After all, he is an experienced and very successful detective; he may well be observing events and details and fitting it all together later. The hesitation between the supernatural and the rational, so at odds with each other and paradoxically so integral to the plot of Black Cherry Blues really cannot be resolved, thus bringing the hesitation, the defining characteristic of the fantastic into play – and leaving it there.
In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead deals with the more purely minatory/didactic supernatural. Dave is, as usual, mourning the loss of the Past and faced with evil both present and Past. “Baby Feet” Balboni, a gangster and semi-friend from Dave’s youth returns to New Iberia as a “Hollywood producer.” His leading actor, Elrod Sykes, walks on a drunk driving charge with a story of seeing a skeleton wrapped with chain in the bayou because Dave has a memory that closely matches Syke’s account. However, the actor also sees Confederate soldiers in the bayou, and since the War Between the States has been over for some time, this is problematic. But Elrod, however much a drunk he is, is neither a meltdown nor a head case. And while Dave denies seeing the soldiers, dismissing Sykes as a head case, Sykes states the truth any reader of Burke’s novels knows. Says Sykes, after Dave has denied knowing what he is talking about, “You believe when most people don’t . . And when I say you believe, you know exactly what I’m talking about” (8). Certainly it is easy to dismiss Sykes as a man who has hallucinated Confederate soldiers; in Burke’s usual fashion, the movie Sykes is starring in is about the War Between the States, and Sykes does not have a great deal of credibility. Like Dave himself, he has fallen prey to alcoholic hallucinations and delirium tremens. Like Dave, he is at least somewhat a figure of pity and ridicule. Thus, both Sykes and Dave himself can be dismissed as lacking credibility. However, following the pattern of hesitation established in earlier novels, Sykes shows up drunk at Dave’s house, insisting he has seen the soldiers again. When Dave again dismisses him, Elrod says, “Well, I cain’t blame you for not listening. Maybe I was drunk this time. How could your father have his adjutant’s pistol?” (52). Later that night, Dave thinks, “I didn’t want to fall prey to superstition or my own imaginings or Elrod Syke’s manipulations. But I did.” (53). And, of course, when he digs out his childhood memorabilia, he finds the Remington .44 pistol his father gave him on his twelfth birthday. And, of course, the pistol belonged to Major Moss, John Bell Hood’s adjutant. What is troubling about this find, aside from the obvious, is that Hood and his men did not fight in Louisiana during the War, and yet Al Robicheaux finds Moss’s pistol in an overseer’s cabin, along with some minié balls. Furthermore, Both Alafair and Poteet describe seeing and smelling the General, but again, the sighting is ambiguous – when Dave looks around, he does not see the general. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that a ghost would have body odor, as Poteet says the general has; on the other hand, it is a detail that makes the experience harder to dismiss.
Dave finally does see the Confederate soldiers, but again under ambiguous circumstances that call into question whether he is hallucinating or actually seeing the Confederate soldiers. He has been given a large dose of acid, probably in hopes of discrediting him and forcing him to back away from his investigation of a forty year old homicide. Under the influence of the drug, he, too, sees the soldiers. Nor is Robicheaux his own best witness; many people automatically assume that he has fallen off the wagon or had a mental breakdown. For yet another reason, his encounter is suspect. Dave, after all, hates the corruption that is destroying the Louisiana of his childhood, and is knowledgeable about the Civil War, which he tends to romanticize. Thus, when General John Bell Hood says, “They’ll try your soul, son. But don’t give up the Cause. Occupy the high ground and make them take it foot by bloody foot,” he is saying exactly what Dave, a chivalric and romantic man, would want him to say (161). When Dave says, “I don’t know what we’re talking about,” The General replies: “For God’s sake , what’s wrong with you? Venal and evil men are destroying the world you were born in. Can’t you understand that? (162)
Dave fears that he is having a psychotic episode, but the General not only tells him that is he not, but validates Sykes as well. He also tells Dave that he is depending on him, and when Dave refuses to understand that which he understands all too well, the general states “Our bones are in this place. Do you think we will surrender it to criminals, to those who would use our teeth and marrow for landfill? (162). Hood departs, telling Dave that although he has been poisoned, he will get through it. However realistic the encounter, however, there is one problem: Hood never fought in Louisiana. This adds yet another layer of ambiguity to the presence of the supernatural. Hood did indeed live in New Orleans after the War between the States; in fact, he is buried in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. Later, Dave excavates the site and indeed finds remnants of an Army camp, which, as Dave himself points out, is no great surprise in Southern Louisiana. Thus, there is no proof of the general’s supernatural presence and much to disprove his appearance, leaving the reader poised between acceptance of the supernatural element or rejection of that element in favour of the more conventional rational basis for detective fiction. As Dave thinks when he wants to tell everyone about his find, but realizes how foolish it seems, “How sane,” he asks himself “is any man who would dig for Civil War artifacts in a swamp in the middle of the night in order to prove his sanity?” (172). But the General and his men appear regularly to Dave, frequently engaging in skirmishes. Dave decides that he will not discuss his vision with those “whose lives and vision were defined by daylight and a rational point of view” (172). Bootsie, in attempt to convince Dave that he is either hallucinating or imagining the General, researches Hood and points out the Hood did not fight in Louisiana, etc. Her point is that Dave is tying together historical facts and imagination. He starts to show her the Civil War artifacts but because Bootsie is generally defined by the rational, decides against it.
As the novel progresses, however, Dave stands accused of killing a defenseless woman; in an interesting reversal, the supernatural melds with the rational. As Dave dreams again that he has killed the prostitute Amber Martinez, the dream segues to a dream of a skirmish, in which Dave takes an active part. When he awakens, General Hood is sitting by his bed. It is Hood who brings the rational explanation for Dave’s actions to the fore. When Dave says he sees the woman again and that her hair is glued to the carpet by her own blood, it is not the hard-boiled detective who grasps the significance of this fact, but the general, who says “You’re a good police officer, an intelligent man. What do your eyes tell you? (210). What his eye should be telling him, of course, is that Amber Martinez was dead when Dave shot into the car. The general’s observations are quite cogent, but they also blur the line between the supernatural and the detective conventions.
The general continues his appearances, functioning to warn Dave. His warnings tend to center around danger to Bootsie or Alafair as well as to Dave himself. His warnings are somewhat contradictory: he warns Dave of danger, and says that he must always protect the innocent, even acting under a “black flag” if necessary, but not doing anything dishonorable. (236). At this point in the novel, the reader is free to accept or reject the supernatural element. The general could certainly function metaphorically as Dave’s conscience or as the conflict Dave always has between the present and the Past; after all, there is little incontrovertible evidence that the general really appears. A pistol that may have belonged to Hood’s adjutant, some Civil War artifacts in a state where routine spring plowing turns up minié balls, a dry spot on the bleachers where the general sat while Dave lay unconscious and probably concussed from a baseball Balboni threw at him. For Robicheaux to agonize over whether the end justifies the means, however, is not at all unusual, which would explain the general’s wounds bleeding when Dave plants evidence to ensure the capture of the suspected serial killer. The General, an honorable man who served a dishonorable cause would be a perfect symbol for all of Dave’s conflicts. After admonishing Dave to avoid acting dishonorably for any reason,. Hood says, “Don’t emulate me. Look at what I invested my life in. Oh, we were always honorable-Robert Lee, Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnson, A.P. Hill, but we served venal men and a vile enterprise (315). This is something with which Dave struggles throughout his career; certainly, he does not need a supernatural intrusion to warn him of the dangers. What is more, in An Aesthetic of Junk Fiction, Roberts argues that this [societal order] is not what the detective story is about: “The special concern of this tradition, in all its forms,[ . . .] is the conflict between the lawful and the good. (140). This distinction is quite apparent in the Robicheaux series, as Robicheaux will often compromise the legal to attain the good; certainly it is not necessary to believe that Dave sees John Bell Hood to notice this particular conflict, as it appear over and over again in many nonsupernatural scenes.
Convenient though the metaphorical view is, however, there are several incidents it fails to explain: the people other than Dave who see the general, and more importantly, the ghost of Lou Girard appearing to Dave; unable to speak because his jaw has been blasted away by his murderer, he finishes the letters he has been trying to draw on the floor with his blood. The “P” of SP, State Police is what gives Dave his real clue to the murderer. Girard appears to Dave because Dave does not accept the suicide theory, and because they were both friends and fellow addicts. Again, however, the hesitation obtrudes. Dave, above all else in an intuitive man and a good detective. Another explanation that avoids the supernatural entirely is that Dave is working the case in his subconscious; something abut the murder scene at Lou’s apartment bothered him and stuck in his mind; as is typical of many people and not only haunted ex-alcoholic cops, the unconscious will often provide an answer that the conscious mind cannot quite grasp. As in Black Cherry Blues, another novel in which dreams generated by the dead seem prominent, an alternate explanation is quite possible. Except, of course, for General John Bell Hood.
The general continues to appear, and at one point Dave has his photograph taken with the general and his staff; it is this photograph which will resurface at the end of the novel, not only calling the general’s appearance and Dave’s sanity, but calling the history Bootsie has relied on to disprove Dave’s view that he is actually in contact with a dead Confederate general in to question. Even Dave “has to accept that the general, as Bootise has said, was a hopeful figment of my fantasies, a metaphorical and mythic figure . . .” (343), In the last scene in the novel, Alafair, however, is paging through a history book and sees Dave. “You’re in the picture,” she says. “ With that old man Poteet and I saw in the corn patch. The one with the B.O.” (343). This is, of course, impossible and has no place in detective fiction; nevertheless, Dave is undeniably in the picture. Burke seemingly settles the hesitation on the side of the supernatural in this particular novel, although enough uncertainty exists to call the General’s appearance into question. As we shall see, however, this is not always the case.
In both Burning Angel, and Joli Blon’s Bounce, Dave is saved by a man whom he, as well as the reader, has reason to believe is dead. In Burning Angel, Sonny Boy Marsallus returns, possibly from the dead, to protect both Dave and his family. Sonny has been declared dead, but for a dead man, he is remarkably active, being seen in several places well after his “death.” Dave has fiercely resisted the government’s claims that Marsallus is dead, pointing out that the corpse claimed as Sonny’s could be anyone’s. He scoffs at the idea that the corpse could be identified by dental records, saying QUOTE He is finally brought to believe in his death – not because of the corpse, riddled by bullets and nibbled by crabs, which he correctly points out could be anyone - but because he remembers a very specific tattoo Sonny had on his shoulder. His reaction is both visceral and immediate; he vomits violently when he realizes that the corpse he saw had the Sonny’s tattoo. However, the sightings continue, even after Dave is more or less convinced of Sonny Boy’s death; in fact, a pale man with red hair intervenes to save Alafair, not to mention Dave, well after his putative death. This leads to the question of precisely what undead form Sonny might be, assuming of course that Sonny is indeed dead. As is typical of the invocation of the hesitation, this is not ultimately subject to proof. . The statements of two people who very much want him dead and a virtually unidentifiable corpse do not constitute proof of death; nor does Dave’s belief that he is dead indicate proof. On the other hand, the fact that people claim to have seen him does not necessarily indicate that he is alive either. As is the case in Last Streetcar to Elysian Fields, where one can argue for or against Dave’s claim that he hears Bootsie’s voice, all we can be sure of is that people who claim he is living or dead believe what they are saying.
However, if Sonny Boy is dead, then he is obviously not running around New Orleans, unless, of course, he is either a zombie or a revenant, which are the likeliest possibilities.8 He could, of course, be a ghost, but the strong impression that at least some of the time, he has corporeal substance rather argues against that possibility. Sonny Boy shows no signs of being a zombie, a creature which lacks free will and is under the control of a bokor (vaudun sorcerer). In life, Sonny Boy was not easily controlled, and he remains the same in death. Sonny Boy undoubtedly has a will of his own, nor does any evidence of control by a vaudun surfaces. He could fall into a category of the revenant, an animated corpse which, in many different folklore tradition, returns to harass and terrify the living. Revenant, as the term in generally used in both horror fiction and folklore, does not quite seem to fit, not least of all because no absolute proof of Sonny’s death exists, but because revenants are almost always negative forces. The problem here, again, depends on point-of-view; Emile Pogue and his companions would, without a miss in beat, so classify Sonny Boy. He is indeed a very negative force in their lives. However, he is not a negative force in the Robicheaux family’s lives; in fact, like Sal Angelo in Joli Blon’s Bounce, he is a very powerful force in their favor. He intervenes to protect Alafair from Emile Pogue and he saves Dave’s life when he is literally moments from death at the hands of the assassin “Charlie,” a/k/a Terry Serrett. Both of these events occur when he is theoretically dead. Alafair notes that the helpful man had red hair, a white bloodless face, and walked like he was hurt: she also noted that that Emile Pogue turned white and gunned the car down the road in his haste to get away. However, Sonny disappears after she is safely in sight of home. Later, when Emile Pogue calls Dave again trying to explain that he is making amends for previous bad acts, he claims he smelled Sonny Boy Marsallus’ breath and “it was like the stink when you pop a body bag” (BA 291). He further claims that ”the Dutchie,” the Mennonite nun he threw out of a helicopter, has turned Marsallus loose on him and “ . . it’s all part of the same geography. Hell don’t have boundaries” (BA 291). Clearly, Emile Pogue believe that Sonny was dead and is now back. And although Dave puts his words down to “’roid induced pyschosis,” we know he does not entirely believe what he is saying. While many instances of ghosts returning to point out their accusers, indicate clues, warn the living appear in both fiction and non-fiction, Sonny Boy is described as having substance, which ghosts do not have. If Dave sees him in a dream, making the ghost a possibility, Alafair sees him as a living man, thus bringing the hesitation into play. He obviously cannot be both - he is either alive or he is a supernatural entity, but we cannot tell which. Nor does Burke allow us to forget that the government has a stake in believing Sonny dead, and no reader can miss the skepticism with which Robicheaux regards governmental agencies.
When Dave is moments from death, Bootsie guns the assassin down, having received a phone call telling her that she must act because he is too far away. At first, Dave assumes that Bootsie is talking about Clete, but she is not: she is very specific. “The phone rang out on the garden and he said ‘Dave’s in trouble. I can’t help him. It’s too far to come now. You have to do it’” (333). When Dave asks who, Bootsie replies: “I can’t handle this. You said that you saw his tattoo on the remains in the morgue. You swore you did. But I know that voice, Dave. My God . .” But then, as I have pointed out previously, this assertion, much like Dave’s assertion that he hears his dead wife [Bootsie’s] voice, is open to question. Can we really be sure that she actually heard Sonny? Although Bootsie does not state that it is Sonny Boy, the tattoo can hardly refer to anyone else. Again, however, that is that loophole in the fabric of the plot – is Sonny Boy dead? If he is not, and there is evidence he bears a charmed existence, then there is no mystery. Evidence, however, exists that he is indeed dead: Dave has a dream in which Sonny comes to him and shows him the holes in his body where Pogue got him. Anyone with the number of bullet holes that Sonny displays certainly should be dead, and Dave decides to believe that Sonny is indeed deceased. The scene where Dave dreams Sonny has come to him resonates with one from Black Cherry Blues, when Dave realizes that the dreams from the dead are actually telling him something. The rational point of view, however, would point out that, as in Black Cherry Blues, what Dave sees as dreams from the dead are nothing more than his unconscious mind rearranging facts to makes sense of the puzzle pieces. Certainly we can decide on the rational. On the other hand, we can choose to believe that a beneficent force is looking out for Dave and Sonny is part of that force; such a force, whether we label it God or Good or Karma, is certainly supernatural in origin. To decide on a supernatural element, like deciding to reject the supernatural, means solving the hesitation and either holding to the rational or widening the genre to accept the inexplicable. The key point is that the hesitation gives us the option of deciding.
In Joli Blon’s Bounce, the homeless man who claims to be Sal Angelo, the medic who saved Dave’s life in Vietnam, may be that medic or may be, as his name suggests, Salvation via Angel. Certainly, he saves Dave from killing Legion Guidry, whose name is in counterpoint to Sal Angelo’s, and who may indeed either be a demon or possessed by demons. Clearly, the names themselves are indicators of a supernatural element, particular Sal, which is obviously short for Salvatore and Legion Guidry, who is most often addressed solely as “Legion.” No one with any Biblical knowledge can miss that allusion; further, there are hints concerning his probably nature throughout the book – he speaks in an unknown language, is “not human,” seems to shapeshift, speaks in a different voice, and most of the black people who encounter him believe absolutely that he is either a demon or is possessed by demons. His death, of course, mimicking Christ’s exorcism, provides the final proof. Whether Legion is a demon or is possessed by demons does not matter; either scenario takes us out of detective fiction and into the realm of the supernatural. Add Sal Angelo, who appears out of nowhere, uses, according to Dave, three different names, may or may not be the medic who saved him in Vietnam, sometimes does not seem to be aware of all he says or does, finally saves Dave from shooting Legion by apparently supernatural means, as it is clear from Helen Soileau’s account that he must be the worst shot in the Army, and then disappears. And, of course, when Dave tries to check on Sal Angelo’s finger prints, nothing comes back. Sal has claimed his records got lost. When he eventually checks Sal’s records, he discovers the man named Sal Angelo had died in Vietnam a month after he carried Dave to the helicopter.. Once again, in a well established pattern, the reader lacks specific answers.
Is Sal D’Angelo no more than the medic in Vietnam, who physically returns into Dave’s life to help him solve a crime, or is he actually an instrument of God, who blasts Legion Guidry, who may or may not be either the devil or possessed by demons, out of his boots with a well-aimed bolt of lightning? Legion Guidry is considered to be the devil incarnate by many black people, but since these people are completely at his mercy, and Legion has no mercy, this attitude is unsurprising. Dave, a strong believer in Good and Evil, and a Roman Catholic to boot, would certainly believe in demons in some shape or form. Nevertheless, throughout most of the novel, Dave believes he is dealing with an extremely evil man, but a man nonetheless. If he really believed that Legion was actually a demon, it seems unlikely that he would confront him without a priest to perform an exorcism. As a good Catholic, Dave would know the importance of this particular ritual. And yet, he heads out to Legion Guidry’s house alone, until he discovers that Sal is also with him. He is, in other words, acting precisely as a hard-boiled detective is expected to act. While he may be acting outside the law, he has decided to kill Legion rather than attempting to arrest him. Sal’s identity is uncertain to say the least; he may be what he seems to be – a homeless Vietnam veteran; he may be who he says he is- the medic who saved Dave in Vietnam. He may also be possessed by a force that counters Legion Guidry. Like John Bell Hood, he warns Dave against taking the law into his own hands, saying, “Remember what I told you about making yourself the executioner? The soul travels out of your body, then can’t find its way back”(430). Like Legion, two being seem to occupy his body. When Dave says that he will have to drop Sal off and pick him up later, Sal says, “Our story is already written. You can’t change it.” However, when Dave hits a bump Sal Angelo wakes up, seemingly from a deep sleep, and has no idea what he has said. He accompanies Dave to Legion’s home, going so far as to handcuff Dave to a water pipe as he stands to take aim at Legion., who is unlikely to have encountered Sal earlier, behaves “as though recognizing an old enemy” (442). When Sal aims the Beretta at Legion, telling him that it is “Time for you to check out Jack, [and] I don’t mean boogie on down the road, either”, Legion, who seems to fear no man, hisses at Angelo and bolts for the woods. Dave sees Sal fire all ten rounds from the Beretta and also sees a bolt of lightning illuminate Legion “like a piece of scorched tin” (443).
Both Sonny and Sal do intervene to save Dave – Sonny on a direct physical basis and Sal on a more moral level, always assuming that Legion would die if Dave shot him; such actions certainly subvert the role of the hard-boiled detective, who is assumed by the reader to be the prime force in restoring social order. While this particular novel is at least partially concerned with the classic confrontation of good versus evil on a supernatural plane, more conventional detective fiction is concerned with good versus evil on an earthly plane.
As such reader-response critics as Roman Ingarden, Wayne Booth and Wolfgang Iser point out, reading is a constructed experience which takes place between the author and the reader. When Ingarden refers to a text as a “schematized set of instructions for the creation of the whole work,” (qtd. in Heller 1) or Iser notes that “[. . .] the educated reader expects specific things from prose and poetry [. . .]. the expectations can be shattered, altered, surpassed or deceived, so that the reader is confronted with something unexpected which necessitates a readjustment,” they are referring to the relationship between the reader and the text(s) (Iser 58). Iser further notes, more germanely to my examination of the effect of genres antithetical to each other, that “the overlapping of different forms makes it possible to communicate the unknown through the known, which brings about the expansion of our experience” (59). At first glance, this seems quite likely – a reader familiar with one genre should be able to construct a working knowledge of other genres if he or she perseveres in reading the unfamiliar. But the expectations of readers who routinely read detective fiction are quite different from the aficionados of fiction that uses the supernatural, and knowledge of one genre does not automatically confer knowledge of another. Someone who reads detective fiction and accepts the conventions of that genre may well not either accept or notice the intrusion of the supernatural.
If a reader cannot accept the supernatural, then the Robicheaux series can still be read with great enjoyment as hard-boiled detective fiction. The reader who opts out of the supernatural has decided to read detective fiction rationally and conventionally, dismissing those elements that disturb the conventions.. I have a friend, for example, who is a great fan of detective fiction and Burke’s work in particular. Her husband is a minister, and one would assume that she would catch the supernatural in Burke. However, we were discussing Joli Blon’s Bounce one day, and I asked whether she thought that the supernatural functions in a religious sense. Puzzled, she asked what supernatural I meant. She had totally missed the allusions to Legion as a demon, including his demise, where he is found “floating around with a bunch of dead pigs.” (445). Sal Angelo’s name did not ring any bells, either.
As far as discussing the supernatural, there is nothing to be said. Like my friend, the minster’s wife who completed missed the supernatural elements and Biblical allusion in Joli Blon’s Bounce, this type of reader has decided that the supernatural is not present.
However, the reader who resolves the hesitation on the side of the angels or demons, so to speak, accepting the supernatural, may feel two ways about it. If one accepts the supernatural, without seeing it as a part of the series, an intrusion instead of an integral part, then one’s reading pleasure must also diminished. If one takes the presence of the supernatural negatively, the hesitation, the lack of certainty over what has happened, the ambiguous plot, and the constant undercutting of both reality and the supernatural provide the reader of detective fiction with a disquieting feeling for several reasons. Perhaps it is the unease the unexplained supernatural often causes, or the lack of satisfaction with the hesitation that is built into almost every novel, or the inability to accept the lack of closure inherent in the hesitation. The fact that questions concerning the supernatural presence are not answerable, or are answerable both yes and no, are always subverted and undercut, sustained yet contradicted, adds to the uneasiness of the reading experiences. After all, detective fiction does not leave loose ends, like cosmic interference, lying about. Detective fiction is a neat fiction, where, in general, all the loose ends are neatly tied up or tucked away, and everything is explained. At the end of a detective novel, one expects the criminal to be identified and usually captured, the detective to be successful in carrying out his mission to restore societal order, and all actions accounted for. Even though Dave Robicheaux does indeed bring Jimmie Dean Styles and Tee Bobby Hullin to justice for the rape of Amanda Boudreau., an aficionado of detective fiction is going to feel, correctly, that the sub-plot involving Angelo and Legion is not solved by natural means, but by a force that has no place in detective fiction. However, when Helen comments to Dave that Legion had no bullet wounds on his body, but looked as though he was hit by lightning on a stormless night, and furthermore, ended up floating in the bayou surrounded by porcine corpses, her comments undercut and subvert the main plot. When Dave solves an old murder and clears the homicide charge against him by means of a dream, or when Sonny Marsallus kills the assassin who is within seconds of killing Dave, or when General Hood points out clues Dave is missing, asking him basically to remember the crime scene, the effect on the reader is to call the role of the hard-boiled detective into question. For this reader, the one who cannot dismiss the supernatural, or who is caught in the hesitation, the intrusion of the supernatural leads to an unsatisfactory reading experience. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, such a reader can either not resolve the hesitation or accept the presence of supernatural without feeling that it should be part of the series. Such choices certainly affect the pleasure and engagement involved in reading. If a reader is unable to resolve the hesitation, then that reader, as Terry Heller contends in Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror becomes entrapped in anti-closure. Discussing Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” he states “‘Ligeia’ asks us to play detective. It then deploys the material of a mystery in such a way as to prevent its solution,” a sort of catch-22. (123). Such an ending, according to Heller, forces readers to construct their own ending. Surely this is antithetical to the way detective fiction works. In much the same way, the supernatural’s presence prevents the novel’s action from proceeding smoothly toward the standard, invariable ending in which the good guy detective pursues and captures the bad guy crooksNeither closure nor resolution can come to pass, however, if the reader is suspended within a reading experience that denies the fulfillment of textual expectations. Such a reader might well prefer to avoid the Robicheaux series.
If one takes the presence of the supernatural positively, looking at the supernatural forces as both aiding Robicheaux and restoring social order, then one may not be particularly bothered by the supernatural intrusion. Such a reader might devise some new reading strategy, possibly one that emphasizes the ability to deal positively with a slippage in genre expectations. While it is more likely that this reader would be familiar with reading conventions of other fictions than those of detective fiction, the ability to see the supernatural as a part of the plot and as a part of the holistic move toward the restoration of order would see the supernatural as adding to the meaning of the of the work. It does matter, after all, whether Sal Angelo is an angel sent by God or a hallucination of Dave Robicheaux; it matters whether Legion is indeed possessed by demons and not garden variety evil. If the dead can indeed return to protect the living, assuming that is, that the dead did indeed return, then that is also important. For example, it would be very upsetting (not to mention a series ender) if Sonny Marsallus did not save Dave from death; if Sal Angelo had not intervened, Dave might well have crossed the line of acceptable behaviour and killed Legion himself. Looking at the idea of detective fiction as a fiction of order restored, the reader who likes the idea of the supernatural may well appreciate the presence of those things that cannot be explained. These are not portions of the novel that can be denied or dismissed as unimportant. While the inability of the critical reader to decide the status of their importance matters as well, particularly considering S.S. Van Dine’s dictum that “the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery,” (Twenty), Burke does not
In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Donna Haraway comments that "Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true," which speaks to a possible method of reading texts that seem composed of incompatible genres (149). To successfully engage in Burke’s fiction, the reader must be able to juggle Haraway's unresolved wholes and have a sense of irony keen enough to recognize the slippage inherent in irony without permitting that recognition to ruin the engagement. To read in this fashion, it seems to me, would require dismissing hard and fast generic expectations in favour of a fluidity of reading which would integrate all of the generic conventions present in a work without either privileging or dismissing any one genre. Such a reader would fall into a category that says not only genre a, but also genres b, c and d, and throw in e, if necessary. Such a reader would simply step outside the world of the exclusivist or the user; such a reader would be willing an able to deal with antinomy and unresolved wholes. Such a reader can have a great deal of engaged reading, and ride the twisting and sparkly roller-coaster.
Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Vol. II. New York: Bantam, 1986.
The Best English Detective Stories of 1928 intro Ronald Knox, 1929 Horace Liveright
Roberts, Thomas. An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre 104
Teish, Luisah. Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and
Practical Rituals. New York: Harper, 1985.251
CHRISTIO-CONJURE IN VOODOO DREAMS, BABY OF THE FAMILY, THE SALT
EATERS, SASSAFRASS, CYPRESS & INDIGO, AND MAMA DAY
A Dissertation Laura Sams Haynes
published in the American Magazine (1928-sep),
and included in the Philo Vance investigates omnibus (1936).
For example, Burke’s Cajun narrator refers to “the gris-gris, an evil spell
cast by a traiteur, or conjuror.”25 Though there are indeed still traiteurs
in South Louisiana, they are not typically considered conjurors by the
Cajuns. The traiteurs are folk healers, often combining faith healing
with folk medicine, whose “gift” of healing is handed down to them
from another traiteur. Unlike the Mexican-American curanderos, they
are not typically called upon to treat afflictions involving witchcraft.
A Cajun may refer to them as “treaters” or “healers,” but never as
conjurors. Gris-gris or any form of black magic is typically the province
of black voodoo or hoodoo practitioners. Marcia Gaudet
Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 23, Issue 1 (p 77-88)
1 In Every Dead Thing ,the supernatural is used much as Burke employs it. “ Charlie's investigation soon uncovers a possible link with the suspected killer of his family, a serial killer known as The Travelling Man, who may or may not have supernatural powers.
since appeared several times since, his cases sometimes walking a
fine line crime and horror fiction, as the line between this world
and the next becomers [sic] increasingly bluured [sic]. Is Charlie
slowly going off his rocker, or do dead people really speak to him?
Or does it even matter, with writing as powerful and often chilling
as this? . . .Every Dead Thing is grim Noir that wreaks havoc on
sub-genre stereotypes. [. . .] Psychic phenomena move the dark tale
forward. Yet with all that upheaval to the sub-genre norm, the story
line works due to the fact that the characters feel authentic. . .
(Harriet Klausner) http://www.thrillingdetective.com/bird.html
2 --William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1889), p. 966
3 Amy Kaplan Social Construction of American Realism ix). http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/realism.htm
4 Todorov, Tvetsan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970. pp.
5 Todorov, 25.
6 Burke may well be using both traiteur and ju-ju in a more localized and extended linguistic sense. According to my research, a traiteur is a Cajun faith healer, who generally stays within the bounds of Catholic ritual and is not associated with voodoo or vaudun, also a noted Louisiana tradition. A gris-gris may be an object like a fetish or the equivalent to a medicine bag, with certain objects stored in it of a specific type and number. However, a gris-gris may also refer to placing a hex. A ju-ju is a fetish similar to a gris-gris, an amulet of protection. A ju-ju woman is a magician, quite possibly a conjure woman. Whatever specific meanings may or may not attach to the terms Burke uses, Gros Mama Goula is quite clearly a supernatural practitioner.
7 Marcia Gaudet “The Cajun in Literature” JPC 27 pp. 77-89 contends that Burke uses Cajun terms without understanding them and that he is mistaken in conflating gris-gris, which is voodoo/hoodoo or black magic with the traiteur, which s somewhat closer to the Mexican curanderos tradition, as it is a type of folk healing.
8 I’ve debated whether Burke is playing with the idea of a revenant, a corpse who returns to harass and terrify the living, but revenants are almost invariably extremely negative and the term is not a good fit.
Published in A Violent Conscience: Essays on the Fiction of James Lee Burke, Ed. Leonard Engle. Boone: McFarland, 2010. pp. 72-97