Greg Iles’s long-awaited new novel is a big deal, and I do mean big. In this age of 140-character tweets and text messages, there’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about the pleasure of losing yourself in the fully realized, immersive fictional world of a 788-page story. I’m reminded of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (945 pages), or the great sagas of Herman Wouk, James Michener, and James Clavell. The best big novels, like Iles’s instant classic, Natchez Burning, pull you in so deep that you’re utterly transported; they don’t seem long at all.
I’ve always been a big fan of Greg Iles’ work. From Spandau Phoenix to Turning Angel, and his most recent, The Devil’s Punchbowl (just to name a few favorites), he never repeats himself. He’s a graceful writer who knows how to tell a gripping, fast-moving story—without sacrificing texture or fully fleshed-out characters.
The central plot of Natchez Burning starts with Mayor Penn Cage, an attorney Iles introduced in 1999’s The Quiet Game, learning that his father, the town’s most beloved physician, is about to be charged with murder. The victim? Dr. Cage’s former nurse, Viola Turner, who came home to Natchez to die after a nearly 40-year absence.
Did his father assist in Viola’s suicide? Penn would believe it: his father did the same for Penn’s own wife when she was dying of cancer, years before. But as the town’s corrupt district attorney pursues the case, it becomes clear that Viola’s death was no gentle passage into that good night. In fact, a crusading local reporter has video evidence that Viola died in pain and fear. Penn refuses to believe his father had anything to do with that.
Iles weaves this multi-generational web like a master, keeping Penn Cage at the center even as we see his father, Dr. Tom Cage, in both past and present, along with the many citizens of Natchez and its sister community in Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River.
Natchez Burning is an epic, a saga, but it’s also a thriller. We feel the panic and terror of young Jimmy Revels as he walks into the Double Eagles’ trap in 1968. And the rage and despair of Lincoln Turner, Viola’s son, who doesn’t know the truth of his own origins. We feel Caitlin Masters’ desperate need to tell the story through the newspaper she publishes. Sustaining all of this tension for almost 800 pages is no small feat. It’s a testament to Greg Iles’s power as a storyteller.
Iles doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. Natchez Burning is just the first installment in what promises to be an extraordinary trilogy built upon the premise that, in some pockets of the South, the Civil War hasn’t ended. “Appomattox hadn’t ended anything,” a character thinks early in the story, in a scene set in 1968. “[It] had merely heralded an intermission. ” As William Faulkner said (and this book’s narrator quotes), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past. ” In Natchez Burning, the sins and unpunished crimes of the generations who fought integration and civil rights are visited upon their children and grandchildren, claiming victims almost half a century later.