Greg Iles (www.gregiles.com)
April 2017 will see the release, in hardback, of the final volume of Greg Iles’ Unwritten Laws trilogy, Mississippi Blood. To help build excitement for the new book’s release, HarperCollins are running a global blog tour to get people interested in reading the first two books, Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree. I’m delighted to have been asked to take part. You’ll find my review of Natchez Burning below; be sure to check back on October 7th to find out what I thought of The Bone Tree.
Before that, though, HarperCollins have very kindly supplied me with a copy of Natchez Burning and a beautiful Greg Iles tote bag to give away to one lucky winner. To get your name in the hat, leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 11th September. I’ll draw one name from the hat on Monday 12th September and let the lucky winner know before lunch time.
“If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.” A great writer said that, and for a long time I agreed with him.
Penn Cage first learns of the death of his father’s old nurse when the local DA informs him that his father is the prime suspect in her murder. So begins a chain of events that will see Dr Tom Cage on the run for his life, and former prosecutor Penn trying to solve a series of forty-year-old murders in order to prove his innocence. With the help of intrepid reporter Henry Sexton, Penn Cage discovers the existence of the Double Eagles, a Klan splinter group whose crimes against the coloured community of Natchez, Mississippi covered much darker motives than those of their white-sheet-clad brethren. As Penn and Henry continue to dig, they find connections to local multimillionaire Brody Royal and the operations of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. No longer sure who his father really is, Penn Cage finds himself in a race against time to prove his innocence before his own family become the latest victims of the Double Eagles.
Natchez Burning is the fourth of Greg Iles’ novels to feature (former) state prosecutor Penn Cage, though it is the first volume of the so-called Unwritten Laws trilogy, which will conclude next April with the publication of Mississippi Blood. As a first-time reader of Iles’ work, I’m happy to report that no prior knowledge of the character is required to dive into this dark and intricately-woven tale of the racial tensions that still plague America’s Deep South over forty years after the work of the Civil Rights Movement.
The story focuses on a series of crimes from the central portion of the 1960s ostensibly committed by a Ku Klux Klan splinter group called the Double Eagles. At the end of 2005, as New Orleans struggles to get back on its feet following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the nearby town of Natchez, Mississippi prepares for Christmas. Viola Turner, an elderly black woman who worked for Dr Tom Cage during the early 1960s before disappearing for almost 40 years, has returned home to die. When she is found dead in her sickbed, suspicion immediately falls on Dr Cage with whom, it is reported, she had a euthanasia pact. When Tom clams up, refusing to answer the questions of his son Penn, now serving as the mayor of Natchez, Penn begins to question what he thought he knew about his father. When Dr Cage disappears, Penn’s faith in the old man is shaken to the core.
Henry Sexton, a crusading reporter who has spent years trying to get to the bottom of the Double Eagles’ reign of terror finally gets one of them to talk. Glenn Morehouse is dying of cancer, and wants to confess his sins before he dies. When Henry hears of Tom Cage’s predicament, it becomes clear that he and Penn Cage could help each other, proving Tom’s innocence and bringing down one of the richest men in America in the process. But some of the Double Eagles are still alive, and the group has grown, the reins passing to a younger generation of tougher men, who will stop at nothing to ensure their own safety.
While Natchez Burning seems, at first glance, like a hefty investment – the paperback clocks in at over 850 pages – it’s a reasonably fast-paced read, the type of book that is extremely difficult to put down once you’ve picked it up. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve found myself sneaking a handful of paragraphs in every spare minute of the day. This is helped by the story’s relatively compressed timeline: aside from the opening chapters which give us some insight into the formation of the Double Eagles, and an introduction to some of their most important (to the story, at least) victims, the bulk of the story takes place over three days in the week before Christmas. Told from multiple viewpoints, it quickly becomes apparent to the reader – if not necessarily the characters, who each have a limited amount of knowledge – just how complex the story is while never quite giving us enough to piece together a solution: as the novel ends, Tom Cage’s motives for flight, for example, are as obscure as they were at the story’s beginning, though we begin to understand his character more as the days pass.
The story is told in a mixture of first-person present tense (from the point of view of Penn Cage) and third-person past tense for a range of other characters including Henry and Tom, Penn’s girlfriend Caitlin, and members of the Double Eagles like Sonny Thornfield and Forrest Knox. It’s an interesting approach that allows Iles to distance himself from Cage when he needs to: there are a couple of key scenes where we watch the action from another point of view and find ourselves questioning Penn’s motives, something that would have been impossible had we been watching through his eyes. While there is no doubt that Penn is the story’s hero, these scenes make him seem more human, more willing to bend the law if it means his father survives and keeps his freedom.
Natchez Burning gives an insight into the modern-day Deep South and shows that, in many respects, the darkness that enshrouded it during the 1960s is still very much in place today. “He broke the law,” one character tells Penn, “the unwritten law” as justification for the death of a black boy whose only crime was to fall in love with a white girl. What is most frightening for the modern audience, is the sense that this sentiment is as true for that character in 2005 as it was in 1964. There is a moment towards the end where Iles falls victim to cliché (the bad guy with a propensity for talk rather than action), but it’s a small blip in an otherwise excellent novel.
Dark and at times horrific, Natchez Burning is a fictional look at one of the worst periods of America’s history made more frightening by its roots in reality. It’s an examination of family and loyalty against a backdrop of racism and conspiracy. There is, in Iles’ opinion, plenty of blame to go around, and he spreads it liberally – the Ku Klux Klan, local police, the FBI. An excellent companion piece to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, with which it shares many themes, Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning is an incredible piece of fiction that I – and, indeed, you, if you have not already – should have read when it was first published in 2014. With the impending publication of the trilogy’s closing volume, there is no better time to catch up with the book that started it all.