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Bookends: Murder and Intrigue in the Deep South February 7, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in A Klondike Korner.
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Bookends: Murder and Intrigue in the Deep South

By Dan Davidson

September 23, 2015

– 923 words-

 

Natchez BurningNatchez Burning

By Greg Iles

Harper

865 pages

$12.50

 

When he’s not hanging out with Stephen King and playing garage band rock and roll as part of the Rock Bottom Remainders (they’re all writers) Greg Iles is busy turning his home town of Natchez, a small city of about 16,000 souls, into a place with as much mystery and intrigue as King’s beloved state of Maine.

Iles doesn’t play the supernatural card very often, though he did earlier in his career, but he does believe in the power of evil and is well aware of the ambivalence with which even good men sometimes find their way through the world.

Penn Cage, former prosecuting attorney, best-selling novelist, and currently (in the 2005 world of this book) the mayor of Natchez, is one of those men. He means well, but sometimes choses to let the end justify the means, and that doesn’t always work out for him.

While much of this book does take place in 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina savaged New Orleans, its roots are in 1963, when racial bigotry caused the death of a fine old man who only wanted to run his music store and help some down and out young men find a career fixing and playing instruments.

One of those young men had the temerity to have an affair with the white girl, the daughter of a powerful white man connected to the Double Eagles, one of the more violent offshoots of the Ku Klux Klan. Albert Norris tried to hide that boy from Brody Royal’s vengeance and died a fiery death in payment.

That death, and a number of other race related murders, sit at the back of much of what goes on in this novel, and we’re never allowed to forget it for very long.

Cage’s immediate problem, however, is that his father, Dr. Tom, is being accused of having murdered the woman who was his faithful nurse for many years back in the 1960s, around the time of Norris’ murder. Viola, dying of cancer, had come back to Natchez from Chicago to ask her former boss (and we knew almost immediately that they must once have been lovers) to help her come to a more peaceful end.

Penn Cage has no qualms about euthanasia, He’s quite sure that his father eased his own wife’s passage to peace when the cancer was killing her, and he’s always been grateful for that, even if it left him a single parent for some years. Since then he has found a new love in Caitlin, the wealthy publisher of a local newspaper, and they are planning marriage, much to the delight of his pre-teen daughter.

But Viola did not go gentle into that good night. She died hard, and her final moments were caught on video tape. It’s 2005 and assisted suicide is still a crime in Natchez, Mississippi, but this is worse. It looks like murder, and Viola’s son, who might just also be Tom’s son, has come down from Chicago breathing fire and looking for several varieties of revenge. He says Tom murdered Viola.

To one side of all of this is Henry Sexton, a reporter at a smaller town’s paper. He was a young man mesmerized by Norris’ daughter in the 1960s, and he has always wanted to solve the spate of murders and disappearances that took place around that same time and bring the villains to justice.

Penn Cage is at the centre of this story, and his chapters are given to us in the first person and present tense. Iles uses a limited third person past tense narrative style to take us into the minds of his other central characters: Henry, Caitlin, Tom Cage, and various of the villains. It’s an effective strategy for broadening the reach of the storyteller, and Iles uses it well.

When I’m flying I need something to take my mind of the fact that I’m 30,000 odd feet in the air and that those bumps are not the wheels of my truck on a Yukon Highway. Sometimes the in-flight video system will do it for me. Sometimes writing a story on my iPad works the magic. But there’s nothing quite like a good book. With a really good book I can go to a place where a bit of turbulence is an annoyance because it keeps me from focusing on the page rather than causing me to get the chills.

Natchez Burning was one of those books. Over the course of half a dozen takeoffs and landings during my month away from home, Greg Iles deviously plotted legal thriller kept me company and helped to pass the time. I’d finished all but about 150 pages of its 865 by the time we got back home.

There have been several novels featuring Penn Cage, and others in which he is a peripheral character, since Iles stopped sight-seeing around the world and the nation and focussed his sights on his home town. This book has a lot of loose plot threads and is the beginning of a trilogy. Book two, The Bone Tree, is already out in hardcover. His website reports the third book nearly finished and that this book has been optioned for a cable TV series. While the 2005 portions of the book take place in less than a week, it would take a dozen or so episodes to do it justice.

 

-30-

 

 

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