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Review: Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles

This is a novel about the American South. A major theme is the relationship between whites and blacks, but Iles goes beyond this and offers a detailed examination of the social structure that is unique to that part of North America.
There is a strong, but meandering, story line centred around Penn Cage, who has appeared in several previous novels. Penn is a small town mayor surrounded by people with hidden agendas and dubious human values. And secrets. There are many, many secrets.
When Penn’s father, a respected and much-loved doctor, is accused in what appears to be a case of assisted suicide Penn confronts him, as gently as possible, to find out the truth of what actually happened and is met with a wall of silence. Tom Cage simply will not talk about it.
The situation is not improved when the charge of assisted suicide is upgraded to murder, especially since the victim is Dr. Cage’s former nurse, who moved away many years ago and has returned to her home town. She has lung cancer and has decided to die in familiar surroundings.
It could be a fairly straightforward story line. But it’s not. The plot backtracks 37 years to the circumstances under which Viola, the nurse, left town, which involves an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan known as Double Eagles and several unsolved murders . . . and a brutal gang rape.
This is a novel that runs 788 pages and is the first book in a planned trilogy. Iles has lots of room to develop any number of (mostly unsavoury) characters. The DA may not be totally crooked, but he’s bent. The Double Eagles are just plain evil. The most respected businessman could well be the force behind much of the bad things that keep happening.
It’s almost a case of Penn Cage against everybody, except for the dogged small town newspaper editor who has spent much of his career digging out the truth behind the respectable veneer. And he suffers for his efforts.
Not an easy book, but rich in detail about the Deep South. And it has the ring of truth. Iles has spent his life in the South and knows whereof he speaks.