Tag Archives: Penn Cage

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.

Turning Angel

I’m not sure whether I like series that don’t necessarily build on each other. And by that I mean the difference between, say, The Lord of the Rings movies and the Die Hard movies. Both are series with the same characters, but if you jump into The Lord of the Rings out of order, you’ll be playing catch up. With Die Hard, you’ll probably recognize that the character existed before but any background you need will be provided for you so you can dive into whatever movie you have on hand. Greg Iles’ Penn Cage series is like that, same character, references to the previous books, but not quite crucial to read in order.

Turning Angel, the second Penn Cage book, finds Cage still in Natchez writing and getting involved in the community. When his childhood friend, Dr. Drew Elliott, is identified as the prime suspect in the murder of a high school girl, Cage quickly finds himself in over his head. The only way he can vindicate his friend of the murder charge is by finding the real murderer–but as Cage starts digging he puts himself squarely in the danger zone, and saving his friend could cost Cage his own life.

I’ll be completely honest, this is the worst book I’ve read by Iles (and there was one book that I didn’t even bother finishing, so that’s saying something). Not only does it seem to fall completely flat compared to other Penn Cage novels, but the approach he takes to a 40+-year-old man having an affair with a 17-year-old girl is frankly disturbing. While I’m not so naive as to think there aren’t young girls who want to be involved with older men, I don’t really agree that it needs to be normalized. And the way Iles’ writes the character of Mia Burke, seeming to not care at all when older men–even teachers–check her out, seems rather unbelievable to me.

Although Iles writes the book with lots of fast-paced action and writes an intriguing court case-building story, I just can’t get past the premise. And given the premise, it’s not surprising then that the book is full of sexual content, consensual and non-consensual. Thus, it does warrant some trigger warnings for readers.

All in all, I can’t say the book is worth reading. I’m glad I got it at a 10 books for $1 sale so I’m not out any real money. It’s well written, but for me personally, I’m just not sure it was worth writing.

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.

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.