© 2015 Greg Iles
When the choice is your father or the truth, who could choose the truth? Penn Cage has always idolized his father Tom. A dedicated physician from the 1950s-on, the senior Cage developed a reputation as a devoted and impartial servant to the sick, taking on black patients when such a thing was regarded as inappropriate, and adjusting his charges so that the poor were not locked out from receiving proper care. One of his former nurses has returned to Natchez and died, and when her anguished son accuses Cage of euthanizing the nurse and fathering him decades ago, Cage’s attempts to defend his father – as a son and a lawyer — unearth one of the darkest, most violent chapters in Natchez’ history.
It’s been years since I read Greg Iles, not because I have tired of him as an author, but because like Phillip Kerr his works tend to be far darker than I can handle on a regular basis. The Devil’s Punchbowl, my last Iles read, was brutal enough to put me off him for eleven years, and Natchez Burning does its best to equal that ugly tale of crime, animal abuse, and serial murderer. The engine of horror here is a Klan offshoot that formed in response to the heavy FBI infiltration of the mainstream Klan organizations in the 1950s and 60s; a small crew designated themselves the “Double Eagles”, and dedicated themselves to strategic, not propagandic, violence. Funded by a local millionaire whose willingness to commit violence was rivaled only by his lust for power, the Double Eagles were responsible for a series of brutal murders in the sixties, stopped only by the accidental death of their leader. Tom Cage’s nurse Viola left town in connection to those murders, and Penn’s attempts to figure out the truth of her death threaten to bring down the wrath of the still-living, still-vicious men and their sons on the city. Still worse: Cage’s old enemy, a failed mayoral candidate whose political relevancy relies on race-baiting, is trying to connect Tom to the Eagles. That this could even be a possibility threatens to undermine everything Cage believes.
This title is eight hundred pages; I read it in two days. Admittedly, I was in the hospital with nothing else to do, but this is a thriller like few others, absorbing and often horrific. Its story is partially set in the 1960s, and partially in 2005, and Iles’ implementation of historic details is as fulsome as Stephen King’s in 11/22/63. The star, though, is the sheer drama –Cage’s attempt to get the truth out of his father, who is burying it for reasons unknown to him. Most interestingly, no one in the book really knows the full truth of the nurse’s story, save Viola, save herself, and passions for everyone run high. Ultimately, despite the viciousness that runs as broad as the Mississippi through this story – including torture and rape — there is something of redemption in its ending. The story, however, is not finished…and continues in The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood, 1600 more pages of terror, blood, and buried history. I’ll definitely try reading the next one, but I almost hope the tenor changes a bit.