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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

William Morrow, 800 pages, $27.99

Natchez Burning is an 800-page book that doesn’t feel like an 800-page book. That is because Greg Iles is a master of pacing. He can give that to you, with substance (and with one hand tied behind his back, blindfolded). He has honed this skill in thirteen other thrillers. Natchez Burning is only the first in a projected trilogy of books featuring Penn Cage, the star of several other books by Iles.

Natchez Burning is two books, one set in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other parts of the South, and one set in the 1960s South during the polarizing events of the civil rights movement.

Penn Cage has gone from a hard-hitting assistant district attorney in Houston to a best-selling author to the mayor of the town of Natchez, Mississippi — author Iles’s real hometown, by the way. Penn moved back to Natchez with his young daughter, Annie, after the death of his wife. Now it’s a few years later, and he has moved on. In fact, he is scheduled to marry newspaper publisher Caitlin Masters in a few days, when his part of the story opens.

Penn’s world suddenly gets seriously more dangerous when his venerated father, Dr. Tom Cage, is accused of murdering his former nurse, Viola Revels Turner. While trying to save his father — who appears not to want to be saved — he finds his father’s fate linked to events that happened in 1964. Then, two black men involved in civil rights disappeared, and a beloved music teacher and store owner was set afire with a WWII flamethrower. Penn’s investigation — apparently mayoring at this point doesn’t take too much time or brain power — uncovers a link to the infamous Double Eagles, “an ultrasecret splinter cell of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Also, Tom might have had an illegitimate son with nurse Viola, a woman he may have killed. That “son” is in town to make sure Dr. Tom is found guilty of his mother’s murder. There’s a smorgasbord of pain and maybes on Tom's plate.

The book is divided between Penn’s first-person narration and third-person accounts mostly of events in the 1960s and the life of Henry Sexton in 2005. Henry is the crusading editor of the weekly newspaper, The Concordia Beacon. He is determined to unearth the Double Eagles and the killer(s) of Albert Norris, his beloved mentor. Although Henry is white, he has doggedly pursued justice on behalf of Albert Norris, the music teacher, and the two men who disappeared, one of whom was Viola’s brother.

Throw in the drug trade, 1960s conspiracy theory, stone-cold killers (perhaps the products of the military-industrial complex), and good-old-boy racism, and suddenly 800 pages doesn’t seem so much. Then it’s understandable why Iles has projected two more books to tie off all the plot lines he has created. Although Iles gives us closure on some issues, sadly, some of the important explanations will have to wait until a later book.

There are a lot of characters, but Iles directs his readers’ attention to a few main characters: good guys Penn Cage, Tom Cage, Henry Sexton, and Caitlin Masters; and bad guys Brody Royal and members of the Knox clan. Iles makes a complex story simpler by doing this. Thank you, Greg Iles.

In a work so immense, it is perhaps not surprising that at least one thing might feel off-kilter. Dr. Tom Cage is seventy-something years old. Yet there he is, going rogue with an old (in several senses of the word)Texas Ranger buddy, trying to find his own form of justice. There’s an APB out on him for jumping bail. He is recovering from a recent heart attack — also having had several other health problems over the years — and somewhere along the line he is shot. His ticker keeps on ticking, however, when even 66-year-old Ahnold Schwarzenegger might be compromised under similar circumstances. 

Penn asks Caitlin to compromise her journalistic standards. Or would she be compromising her ambitions? She publishes a daily newspaper, in competition with Henry's weekly. Investigating FBI agent Kaiser brings his wife, superstar photojournalist Jordan Glass (star of another Iles book), with him to Natchez. Kaiser and Glass act as the slightly-older role models for how to separate a relationship from work. Neither Penn nor Caitlin seems to have the hang of asking the other to “compromise.” What is clear from both relationships is there are a whole lot of secrets going on. This would probably break a real couple, but in this fictional world love will probably conquer all.

In an afterword, Iles talks about his inspiration for this work. Unfortunately, there are a lot of real incidents on which to base this fictional work. The crimes are not pretty, the racism underlying the crimes uglier still. And that part was and is real. Iles has taken an awful time in our history and made it into a very good story that will remind us that the problem existed and still exists. Only brave people march forward and keep trying to eradicate it. Iles’ book is a paean to them.

Not surprisingly, there are cliffhangers at the end. The other two books in the trilogy are scheduled for 2015 and 2016.