Written by Greg Iles — Natchez, Mississippi. Just under 16,000 souls. A small town with a big history. It perches on a bluff above the Mississippi River, and some folk reckon they can still hear the ghosts of paddle steamers chunking away down there on the swirling brown waters. Less romantically, Natchez was the raw, red, beating heart of the Ku Klux Klan and breakaway groups like The Double Eagles, who thought that the Klan was too moderate to resurrect the Old South. That was in the 1960s. We are now in the 21st century, but Natchez has a legacy of torture and violence that’s buried in a very shallow grave. And its corpse is about to see the light of day after 50 years.
Penn Cage is a lawyer, novelist and, more importantly, Mayor of Natchez. His landslide election owed not a little to the reputation of his father, Tom Cage. Cage senior has been doctor to several generations of Natchez residents, black and white. His courage in the face of racist threats has earned him (and his son) almost saintly status across the town. An old black woman, Viola Taylor, riddled with cancer, has come home from Chicago to die in Natchez. She was the main nurse in Tom Cage’s medical practice in the mid-60s, and was witness to – and victim of – some of the worst racist excesses in America’s history. Frail and barely able to speak, she still has a story to tell. When she is found dead, suspicion falls on the now retired Tom Cage. Assisted suicide? Homicide? Adams County is thrown into turmoil, as reputations forged over decades are on the verge of being trashed.
As Penn Cage struggles to come to terms with the possibility that his father may be involved in serious crimes both ancient and modern, he is drawn into a circle of vicious and unscrupulous men, the like of which he has never encountered, despite his years of rough and tumble as a prosecution attorney. The spider at the centre of the web is Brady Royal. A millionaire several times over, he’s a man with bloodstained hands, but hands frequently shaken by every political move-and-shaker in The South. Dancing to his tune are an elderly but still lethal group of group of ex-Klansmen who struck out on their own, and they know where the bodies of 1960s civil rights activists are buried – because they were both the executioners and the undertakers.
Penn Cage and his journalist girlfriend Caitlin Masters battle to keep Tom Cage firstly out of the dock and then, as he goes missing with an old Korean War buddy, out of the gun-sights of trigger happy and corrupt state troopers.
To sustain pace, plot, character and interest over nearly 800 pages must be a herculean challenge, but despite the physical size of the book, the action never loses pace. Time stood still as I read page after page after page. The past constantly tugs at the present in the story, rather like a half-buried hand clawing at the ankles of the participants as they seek to move on. A small word of caution: Iles does not give us all the answers here, and some of the ghosts of the past are not laid to rest. A sequel called The Bone Tree is already finished, and he plans another book to complete the trilogy. Natchez Burning is a magnificent achievement. I doubt that you will read a longer book this year, and I suspect that you will be lucky to read a better one.
Natchez Burning is available from 13 March.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars