Truth and Tragedy
Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning draws readers in for a historical tale of suspense
Review by Kathryn Justice Leache
Books | August 2014
Greg Iles’ long-awaited new novel, Natchez Burning, begins in 1964, with three murders. “Three stones cast into a pond no one had cared about since the siege of Vicksburg, but which was soon to become the center of the world’s attention...the very incarnation of America’s tortured soul. Mississippi.” The ripples created by these murders have just reached present-day Natchez and lapped Penn Cage’s toes. Cage, a character already known to Iles fans as the hero of three earlier novels, is a former Houston prosecutor and widowed father who hasn’t exactly kept a low profile since his return to his hometown. His involvement in several high profile criminal cases has made him a few enemies since his homecoming, though he’s mostly well-liked—mayor of Natchez, in fact. But his and his family’s ties to the community are about to be strained like never before.
Natchez Burning is the first part in a trilogy, but doesn’t read that way. Even at 800 pages, it is densely action-packed with a solid stand-alone plot; it’s not just an expository set-up for second installment, The Bone Tree, due out in April 2015. But the reader is tipped off in many different ways to what the trilogy’s overarching saga will involve. And it’s a doozy—no one can accuse Iles of being unambitious. Jumping back and forth between the 1960s and the present, he weaves a page-turner from many threads of 20th century American history, from the struggle of small town journalists who are still investigating crimes of the Civil Rights era to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
The present day action begins whenPenn’s father, a beloved family physician, is suddenly implicated in a murder with racial undertones and doesn’t want Penn’s help confronting the charges. But Penn can’t leave hisailing father’s precarious circumstances in someone else’s hands,no matter how stridently his father insists he do just that. Penn simply can’t accept that his father has done the things he is being accused of. But the Robert Penn Warren quote that begins the novel’s prologue casts a subversive shadow: “If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.” It doesn’t take much more than a poke to stir up a major hornet’s nest of sordid local history that can’t quite be extricated from what he is beginning to learn of his father’s past--now that he has begun asking the right questions.
Henry Sexton is a longtime reporter for a weekly paper in Ferriday, Louisiana, across the river from Natchez, who has spent his career trying to bring the Double Eagles to justice. The Double Eagles were “an ultrasecret splinter cell of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” who, “by Henry’s reckoning…had murdered more than a dozen people” in addition to various other acts of “assault, arson, rape, kidnapping, (and) torture.” Henry’s cause intersects with Penn’s in the form of Viola Turner, the intelligent and beautiful African-American nurse who worked for Dr. Cage in the 60s. Her brother, Jimmy, disappeared in 1968, and Henry had always suspected he was murdered by the Double Eagles and is on his way to proving it. Penn remembers the lovely Viola from his childhood, but has thought little about her since she left Natchez for Chicago when he was a boy. But as Penn is surprised to learn, Viola, dying of cancer, had recently returned to town—and was under the care of Dr. Cage, his father and her old employer.
Some readers will feel that Iles’ latest is needlessly violent and depressing, waking sleeping dogs that it would be better to let lie. Still others will disagree with the author’s subtle suggestion that race hatred is somehow in our blood, a remnant of an otherwise forgotten tribalism. This is not a novel that lends itself to emotional detachment. While that might be a mark against it to some fans of suspense thrillers who are in the market for an easy beach read, most readers will agree that one hallmark of a good book is that it asks a lot of difficult questions and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable conclusions. Readers will have to wait for the next installment to see how much darker Iles will go.
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