Greg Iles was last heard from in 2009 with “The Devil’s Punchbowl,” a bestseller featuring his recurring protagonist, Penn Cage. In an afterword to that book, Iles indicated that a new Penn Cage novel would appear the following year. But that didn’t happen. In 2011, Iles was involved in a horrific car crash that resulted in a ruptured aorta, a medically induced coma and the partial amputation of one leg. It has been a long road back, and there is no greater evidence of his remarkable recovery than the arrival of his massive, much anticipated new novel, “Natchez Burning.”
Weighing in at nearly 800 pages, “Natchez Burning” is the first volume of a projected trilogy that addresses the racial history of the American South. As Iles promised back in 2009, the hero is, once again, Penn Cage, the lawyer turned novelist who first appeared in “The Quiet Game” (1999). A former prosecutor for the Houston district attorney’s office, Penn, along with his daughter, Annie, returned to his childhood home in Natchez, Miss., following his wife’s death from cancer. He came hoping to find peace and a fresh start, but instead became embroiled in a series of violent investigations that illuminated the darker side of life in Natchez, past and present. Determined to help restore the struggling city, Penn changed professions once again and ran successfully for mayor, the position he holds as this new novel begins.
But before the story gets underway, Iles opens with a historical prologue that contains the seeds of virtually everything that follows. Among the events recounted or referred to here are the 1968 murders of two black civil rights activists, Luther Davis and Jimmy Revels, and the brutal gang rape of Revels’s sister Viola. These and other atrocities were carried out by the Double Eagles, an ultra-violent splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan that plays an increasingly significant role in this saga.
That narrative begins in 2005, shortly after the concluding events of “The Devil’s Punchbowl.” Viola, who moved to Detroit after the 1968 assault, is suffering from lung cancer and has returned to Natchez to die. When her death occurs under questionable circumstances, suspicion falls on Tom Cage, Penn’s father and a revered local physician who has served all levels of Natchez society for decades. The widespread belief that Tom and Viola were once lovers lends substance to the suspicion that he was personally involved in her death. When Tom, racked by private guilt, refuses to defend himself, Penn initiates his own investigation, one that leads directly to the hidden, still hazardous secrets of 40 years before.
Among those who assist Penn in his quest for the truth are two journalists from different generations. Caitlin Masters, Penn’s fiancée, is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose need to pursue a breaking story frequently conflicts with Penn’s more personal agenda. Henry Sexton is a small-town reporter who has spent the bulk of his career gathering evidence on the unsolved crimes of the civil rights era. Henry is one of Iles’s most vivid, credible characters, and his obsessive search for dangerous truths provides the novel with both its wider historical context and its moral center.
In the course of its considerable length, “Natchez Burning” deals with a great many subjects: loyalty to one’s family vs. loyalty to such abstractions as truth and justice, the nature and cost of professional ambition, and the once-incendiary subject of sexual relations between the races. More than anything, though, this impassioned novel is concerned with the pervasive impact of past events, events that refuse to remain buried. Natchez Burning is itself an embodiment of a famous statement by William Faulkner, a statement that has found its way into more than one of Iles’s novels: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past. If it were, there would be no grief or sorrow.”
The result is an impressive beginning to what could prove to be an epic exploration of the nation’s secrets and hidden sins, and it marks the return of a gifted novelist who has been out of the public eye for much too long. Like Stephen King — a fellow member of that literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders — Iles has come back from a near-fatal accident to produce his most searching and ambitious work to date. “Natchez Burning” obliterates the artificial distinction between genre and literary fiction with passion, grace and considerable style. This is Greg Iles at his formidable best. It’s good to have him back.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Greg Iles
Morrow. 791 pp. $27.99