Natchez Burning

Natchez Burning
© 2015 Greg Iles
816 pages

If a man lived long enough, his past would always overtake him, no matter how fast he ran or how morally he tried to live subsequently. And how men dealt with that law ultimately revealed their true natures.

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.  

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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5 Responses to Natchez Burning

  1. I do like thrillers, but Day of the Jackal convinced me that I cannot read graphic accounts of violence. You cannot erase it from your mind afterwards.
    Is this fiction? I would like to read something like this but a non fiction account (as long as they didn’t get into to much detail.)

    • It’s fiction, yes. I’d hope the events of this novel never actually happened. There are some real-life episodes that Iles based bits of the story on, according to his afterward.

      Thank you for asking! I am…OK. Finally recovered from my last bit of surgery over the weekend, and was able to start seeing friends and family. I’m back to work as of yesterday, and today I’m trying to work after a morning on dialysis. It’s mercifully quiet, as opposed to the bedlam of yesterday!

      • I praise your attitude. Is dialysis very painful? I know it’s time consuming. 4 hours a day, 3 days a week? I had a cousin on dialysis. Man, he was the most positive person I knew. He both shamed and inspired me.

        Still praying!!

      • It is…uncomfortable. It makes my head feel very strange, and I usually have to sit a bit afterwards and wait for the light-headedness to abate. I’ve found that if I eat a meal directly dialysis that the worst of the energy sink is avoided. Hospital dialysis and clinic dialysis are slightly different — in the hospital, they used a groin catheter and I felt nothing at all during dialysis, and the energy loss would strike hours later. At the clinic they do a chest catheter, and the energy drain begins almost immediately.

        My schedule is 4 hours a day, 3 days a week — Tuesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays to minimize conflicts with work. I go very early in the mornings and have been trying to put the time to use reading, watching lectures, working on personal business, etc. I bought a laptop over the weekend (I’ll never go without a keyboard again!) and today experimented with watching Netflix and playing Civ3. I couldn’t concentrate on either. After a while it’s just easier to zone out and try to nap.

        I think keeping a positive attitude is probably just self-defense at this point. The only choices are to fight back or become some crumbled shell, and no one wants the latter!

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