Monday, September 8, 2014

Everything's Burning in Natchez Burning

There's more gratuitous violence in Greg Iles' latest novel than I've seen in years. Still, I could NOT put it down. This 800 page thriller steam rolls into your reading life and takes over. What a thrill to find out, about half way through, that this is the first in a trilogy and that the follow up is already in the hopper. It's a tribute to Iles' strength as a person and as a writer that, after suffering severe injuries in an automobile accident, he was able to reap, from a long period of recuperation, such a tremendous literary output.

"Natchez Burning" has everything that a southern gothic novel should; family secrets, political shenanigans, corrupt policing, and still viable remnants of the Klan trying to outrun their pasts. Loyal readers of Greg Iles will already be familiar with Penn Cage, lawyer turned mayor of Natchez, Mississippi. He has finally recovered from his wife's early death, has raised a lovely teen-age daughter, and is engaged to be married to the ambitious, savvy editor of the local newspaper, the feisty Caitlin Masters.

Life is looking up, until, that is, Penn's dad, highly respected and beloved G.P. Tom Cage, who's been practicing medicine on both sides of the color line in Natchez for years, is accused of murder. Was it euthanasia or was it a deliberate attempt to keep his past relationship with the victim quiet? Tom won't talk and Penn is torn between loyalty, disappointment and anger, trying to keep his mom and daughter in the dark until he can find out for himself what his dad is hiding.

Greg Iles does an admirable job of using the dark history of the south, the pain of the civil rights era of the '60's, the unfathomable cruelty and violence of the Ku Klux Klan, as the foundation and backdrop for all that comes after. Vengeance and greed play strong roles in the lives of the businessmen who are behind the cover-ups of multiple race-related crimes in the Natchez area over the years and god help the do-gooders who try to bring those crimes to light.

There are some great secondary characters in this novel. I'm guessing that Iles has plenty of respect for investigative journalists as Caitlin fights Penn for the right to get the story to print even if it means putting lives in jeopardy. And it's another newspaperman, Henry, whose years of research on the Klan's activities set much of the book's action in motion.

There may be times, during the reading of this novel, that you'll shake your head in disbelief at someone's outsize bravery, or squirm in reproach at the author's use of German flamethrowers as instruments of torture, but if you can skim over these distractions, you'll be rewarded with a thriller that leaves you breathlessly anticipating the sequel, "The Bone Tree," out next April.

Learn more about Greg at his trippy website . Bookie insiders will be pleased to know that they can hear Greg perform as a member of the novelist/musician junk yard band, The Rock Bottom Remainders. I just know that someday we'll get them to a gig at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival.

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