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Rules of Crime Fiction: Ghosts Edition

March 17, 2015

electricI’ve always been fascinated by writers who have attempted to define or codify the ‘rules’ of crime and detective fiction. Having previously examined Elmore Leonard’s ‘Avoid Prologues’ rule, I decided to take a look at a much older rule of the genre and to see how well it had held up over time. Rule number eight of S.S. Van Dine’s ‘Twenty Rules of Detective Fiction’ states:

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, 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.

My first reaction on rereading Van Dine’s rules was that rule number eight had long outlived its usefulness. Van Dine was writing in the Golden Age of locked room mysteries and fair play, whereas we now live in an age of genre hybrids when writers are expected to break the rules in what is, after all, the most subversive of genres. However, it’s worth contemplating just how the rule has been broken and to what extent it still applies. One work which I feel is a important challenge to rule number eight is James Lee Burke’s In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993). The sixth novel in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead is a gripping novel in which Burke expertly weaves several plot strands encompassing both past and present together – the brutal murder of a prostitute, the shooting of a black convict which Robicheaux witnessed as a teen in 1957, and the criminal activities of mobster Julie ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni who is co-producing a Civil War film in the town of New Iberia where the main action of the novel takes place. The first person narration of Detective Robicheaux guides the reader through this murky tale with his inimitable mix of weary cynicism and southern charm. One night, after his drink is spiked with LSD, Robicheaux has the first of an intermittent series of dreamlike encounters with General John Bell Hood and a rabble of Confederate soldiers under his command. Loyal, gallant and tacitly aware that he has chosen the wrong side, General Hood has all the qualities one expects of the old South. Robicheaux is faced with a series of dilemmas as to whether he should break the law in his investigation as it is the only means to survive and achieve justice working in the corrupt bureaucracies of the New South. Hood gives Robicheaux allusive advice about the investigation, always cloaked in the subject of maintaining his honour:

‘It’s us against them, my friend,’ he said. ‘There’s insidious men abroad in the land.’ He swept his crutch at the marsh. ‘My God, man, use your eyes.’

‘The federals?’

‘Are your eyes and ears stopped with dirt?’

‘I think this conversation is not real. I think all of this will be gone with daylight.’

‘You’re not a fool, Mr Robicheaux. Don’t pretend to be one.’

‘I’ve seen your grave in New Orleans. No, it’s in Metaire. You died of the yellowjack.’

‘That’s not correct. I died when they struck the colors, suh.’ He lifted his crutch and pointed it at me as he would a weapon. The firelight shone on his yellow teeth. ‘They’ll try your soul, son. But don’t give up your cause. Occupy the high ground and make them take it foot by bloody foot.’

‘I don’t know what we’re talking about.’

‘For God’s sakes, what’s wrong with you? Venal and evil men are destroying the world you were born in. Can’t you understand that?’

The ghostly visitations feel so real in the novel as Burke effortlessly evokes the southern atmosphere of both these men’s times, which make the exchanges between the general and the detective captivating to read. As Kevin Burton Smith says of Burke’s writing in the Thrilling Detective, ‘his depictions of the the back roads and bayous of rural Loiusiana verge on poetry. You can smell the bayous, taste the spices of the food, hear the wind whistle through the trees and the canebreaks.’ This novel was the start of Burke’s interest in ghosts and the supernatural, which amusingly lead Burton Smith to grumble, ‘one might quibble that there have been a few too many dead people popping up in the books to offer him [Robicheaux] help on his cases.’ Although Robicheaux’s meetings with Hood appear to be dreamlike encounters, and therefore not an infringement on Van Dine’s rules, Hood not only lectures Robicheaux on his conscience but awakens parts of his subconscious. There is a final twist in the tale, which I won’t give away here, casting doubt on whether the encounters were merely dreams all along. Perhaps then, by the denouement, things are not ‘solved by strictly naturalistic means.’ Genre hybrids may be common now, and many writers have taken a scalpel to Van Dine’s aversion to ‘slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing’, but few have done it with as much charm and credibility as James Lee Burke.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2015 4:29 pm

    James Lee Burke is a special writer. It is high time his writing became more widely recognized. As for rule eight, good point. The cross genre generation, their heads filled with comic book cross overs and movie hybrids have long since called “time” on such constraining and outdated rules. However, a word of caution to aspiring crime writers. Defiance of rule eight can be the kiss of death commercially—unless your work shows itself to be cross genre from the very outset—and that means from the very first paragraph.

    • March 19, 2015 5:09 pm

      Thanks Tony. I agree that Burke can pull off the sort of genre-defying crime novels that otherwise seem unappealing in this crossover franchise age. The film of this novel, with the shortened title In the Electric Mist, is actually quite good but some of the Ghosts scenes are toned down and it struggled to get a distribution in the US.

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