Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
Penn Cage is the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi. Tom, his father, is the town’s doctor who is charged with the murder of Viola Turner, an African-American woman who had been his nurse before leaving the community 40 years earlier. There is suspicion that their relationship in the 1960s had not been solely professional. When Tom refuses to defend himself, his son sets out to discover the truth; his search leads him to investigate unsolved crimes of the civil rights era carried out by the Double Eagles, an ultra-violent KKK splinter group. Penn is aided by Henry Sexton, an intrepid reporter who has devoted his life to revealing the crimes of the Double Eagles, and by Caitlin Masters, Penn’s fiancée and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist.
What is uncovered is Natchez’s “secret history” of violence against blacks. It is not an easy read; there are descriptions of savage beatings and torture and “deaths by flaying, burning, drowning, and crucifixion.” The horrors pile up. Caitlin mentions at one point, “But the sheer weight of the horrors Henry had uncovered had begun to deaden her sensibilities. The same thing could easily happen to the Examiner’s readers, so she had to choose her focus carefully.” Iles has the same problem; instead of just being horrified at the extent of the injustice and violence, the reader may be left wondering how the author is going to outdo himself in the next confrontation between good and evil.
Some of the scenes seem to have been written with a film in mind. The climactic scene is definitely one of these. In terms of dialogue and suspense, it is tailor-made for a thriller. Unfortunately, it strains credibility, as do many cinematic thrillers.
Characterization is problematic. There are many stereotypical characters: a shady district attorney with a grudge, a crooked sheriff, a criminal mastermind, an intrepid reporter, etc. So many of the characters tend to be either totally good or totally evil. For example, Tom is the noble doctor who “practiced family medicine for more than forty years, treating some of the most underprivileged in our community with little thought of financial reward. . . . If small towns still have saints, then he is surely one of them.” Twice he is referred to as “Atticus Finch with a stethoscope.” In the prologue, the reader is told that Penn discovers that his father may have a chink in his armour and “tired feet of clay – or worse.” Nonetheless, there is little to tarnish his image; questionable behaviour seems to be motivated by love for family. On the other hand, the redneck villains have no redeeming qualities or extenuating motivations.
Point of view alternates among characters, Penn’s chapters being the only ones narrated in first person. Penn is supposedly the star of the book, but I found him annoying. He makes many stupid decisions and drags others in with him. He repeatedly mentions how dangerous the situation is, but then does not take the precautions one would expect. I have not read the previous three Penn Cage novels, but I cannot understand why everyone defers to him. He withholds information from authorities who have proven to be trustworthy.
The themes are clearly outlined in the prologue. The book examines the effects of the past: “’The past is never dead; it’s not even past. If it were, there would be no grief or sorrow.’” It argues that there are no saints: “’Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’” And, of course, it examines the conflict between loyalty to family versus loyalty to truth/justice; Penn is forced to question the adage, “’If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.’” Stating the themes so explicitly is almost an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
There are a lot of loose ends, so the ending will not be satisfactory for many people. What exactly happened when Viola died? What were Tom and Walt hoping to accomplish when they set out? The fate of several characters is not mentioned. This book is apparently the first of a trilogy, so presumably these questions will be answered in the future books.
This book has had rave reviews, so I was rather disappointed. It has a great deal of suspense so works as a thriller, but it is too lengthy. There is considerable repetition. Whether or when I read the other books in the series depends on what other books are on my to-read pile since I did not find myself so invested in the characters that I can’t wait to see what happens to them.