Tag Archives: Natchez Burning

The Devil’s Punchbowl

The final book in the Penn Cage series before Greg Iles takes it into the Natchez Burning series (though technically still Penn Cage, it’s weird, a series within a series), I was ready pretty early on in the book to get it over with and revisit the second half of the series to see if I’ve changed a lot since I read them several years ago or if they really are significantly better than the early books (I’m guessing the latter).

The Devil’s Punchbowl finds Penn Cage running the city of Natchez, but in his two years as mayor, Cage has already become disenchanted with his grand plan to raise the town above all that it’s become. When an old friend from grade school requests a clandestine meeting with Cage and passes on sickening information about activities going on in the town, Cage can’t ignore it. When his friend ends up dead, Cage makes it a personal campaign to catch the bad guys–even if it means getting tangled up with a federal sting operation.

While better than Turning Angel, I didn’t enjoy The Devil’s Punchbowl as much as I’ve enjoyed other books that Iles has written. This one also was pretty gratuitous with sexual content (though I will say that, as it deals with the underworld, it’s at least a little more fitting to the context, even if it’s not enjoyable to read) and at times very graphic. This book definitely needs trigger warnings for rape/sexual abuse and graphic violence, specifically against animals.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is fast-paced, as Iles books always are, but once again it fell flat of my expectations. What has drawn me to Iles’ works are the stories of intrigue mixed with politics and the courtroom. While Iles proves himself a master of thrillers in many sub-genres, turns out not all of them are up my alley. Which is OK, a thriller writer needs the ability to branch out or else risk becoming predictable.

This book is well-written but quite intense with the content it deals with, and not everyone will be able (or willing) to tolerate the detail Iles goes into, nor the plot twists he uses to move the story forward. I don’t want to say it’s inappropriate for people of delicate sensibilities, but I can’t think of a better way to phrase it. The first three books of the Penn Cage series require some thought before diving in.

The Quiet Game

At long last, I cycled back to the beginning of Greg Iles series about Penn Cage. I accidentally jumped into Iles’ books in the middle of the Natchez Burning series, and I’ve basically read all over the place since then.

In The Quiet Game readers meet Penn Cage, a former DA making his living now as a novelist. Cage is returning home to Natchez, Mississippi, in the wake of his wife’s death. Once there, Cage can’t help but get caught up in a decades-old murder. On the surface, it seems like a civil rights race murder, not uncommon in Natchez’s tumultuous past. But as Cage keeps asking questions, it becomes clear that there’s a lot more hiding beneath the surface. Cage has the chance to publicly solve this case and also find some closure to his own past, but doing so might cost him everything.

This book read similarly to what I remember of the Natchez Burning series, packed full of action and unafraid to tackle issues of racism and age-old hatred. Iles doesn’t shy away from the dark history of his town, and though his characters can be rough around the edges, they come through the pages as very real, relatable people.

I will be honest, I did end up taking a break from this book, about two thirds of the way in, because Iles wasn’t leaving any of the romance up to the reader’s imagination (of course, by the time I stopped the only action left in the book was of the thriller variety, not sexual). While I recall sex in Iles’ other books, at times this did seem excessive and gratuitous. I get how the romance with the old flame was pivitol to the story, but a lot of it could have been left to the imagination.

Another warning for readers, Iles’ characters, as mentioned, are rough around the edges. They speak crudely, everything from swearing to slang and derogatory terms. And while I would say, for the most part, it’s in keeping with at least the stereotypical image of a southern town divided by race and stuck decades behind present day, it still may be hard or plain unpleasant for some readers.

All in all, while I enjoyed the story line of this book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I recall enjoying that Natchez Burning series. And while it’s nice to get to know more about the character of Penn Cage, it’s probably not a book I will keep and reread.

Cemetery Road

Since I first read one of his books about a year ago, Greg Iles has stood out as a quality writer of historical fiction sagas. So I jumped at the chance to get an advanced copy of his upcoming book, Cemetery Road.

D.C. reporter Marshall McEwan has spent the last 30 years hiding from various moments in his past, but when he returns to his small Mississippi hometown, everything floats the the surface.

Marshall is fighting to keep hold of his dying father’s newspaper, scheming to save the woman he loves from her unhappy marriage, and looking for answers about his surrogate father’s death. By these goals out him at odds with the Poker Club, a collection of men who run the town, unofficially, and are willing to do anything it takes to achieve their goals.

Going against the Poker Club puts everything in jeopardy, even his life. And suddenly everything starts unraveling for Marshall, and in order to get his life back in order, he has to face the past and finally put it to rest.

In classic Iles style, Cemetery Road has a lot going on, and a lot of it’s traumatic. This book did seem a little more edgy or gritty than the Natchez Burning trilogy (though, it’s also been a year since I read it). It seemed to have more explicit sexual content and cursing than I recall in the trilogy.

That said, it’s still a fast-paced page turner full of twists and turns. The good guys aren’t quite as good as they appear to be, and the story seems to wrestle with the idea of the lesser of two evils.

Iles writes a different kind of political thriller. In small, rural towns, Iles writes about the powerful few who run the town, and the brave others willing to fight and die for the good of the town. Instead of spies and espionage, Iles writes about the kind of political battles that people might fight on a daily basis at home.

While I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as the Natchez Burning trilogy (what can I say, I like series), Cemetery Road was still a quality book and a good read. If you’re looking for a different kind of thriller, look for it when it hits shelves in March.

Mississippi Blood

I timed my dive into Greg Iles’ trilogy at the perfect time. I wasn’t even half way through Natchez Burning when I got my mitts on an advanced reader copy of Mississippi Blood, the final installment of the trilogy.

In Mississippi Blood, the excitement goes (mostly) from on the streets into the courtroom, where Dr. Tom Cage is tried for the murder of his former nurse, the even that was catalyst to the tragedy and adventures that followed. While you might expect the court room to get a little dull, Iles keeps the excitement up. In the court room, we learn little by little the true events, and all the pieces begin to fall into place.

Additionally, there is plenty of action going on outside the court room. For while many adversaries are out of the picture, some still remain a real and present danger to Natchez Mayor Penn Cage and his family.

Iles also keeps us guessing, because as the trial progresses, we learn of half truths and hidden motives,and the final reveal doesn’t come until the final pages. And when you realize it, I’ll bet that you, like me, never saw it coming.

Iles keeps the final book in this trilogy as exciting and suspenseful as the first books, making it a trilogy that is fun to read all the way through. The only complaint I had was that I got tired of the mayor’s constant angst with his father’s lawyer, despite having been told that he, the mayor, would be privy to exactly none of the defense strategy and information. Without giving it all away, I can sympathize with the mayor, but, at the same time, the rants–to himself and to others–got a little tiresome to read.

All in all, Iles keeps the story moving, and it’s worth all 700 pages.

Throughout the entire series, Iles has dealt with history and race very neatly, tapping in to the past for inspiration, and giving a very possible (and likely very real) representation of race in more rural areas even today. The series definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted–it is full of violence, swearing and, to a lesser degree, sex. But Iles isn’t gratuitous in any of it, instead using it to develop characters and add depth and reality to the story.

So if you enjoy history, thrillers, adventure and good writing, give the Natchez Burning series a try. And look for Mississippi Blood, hitting shelves on March 21.