Even before Natchez Burning was nominated for multiple awards, there was a lot of buzz about Greg Iles's return to his mystery / thriller series set in the Deep South. Although Iles has written about fifteen books, this is my first time with him.
Natchez Burning is the fourth in a series starring Penn Cage, who is a mystery writer, prosecuting attorney, and now mayor. Despite some references to earlier cases, I didn't feel lost starting the series here. On the other hand, I have no doubt that readers who have read all the Penn Cage books will have a deeper connection to the characters, the city of Natchez, and the situations described in the book. Note that Natchez Burning is the first in a planned trilogy within the Penn Cage universe.
What's going on? Penn Cage's worst nightmare comes true when his father--a revered and much-loved physician--is accused of murdering a black woman who was once his nurse and rumored lover. Never mind that Viola was dying of cancer and that Dr. Tom Cage hadn't seen her in almost forty years, witnesses could place the doctor at her house the night she died of an apparent adrenaline overdose. Meanwhile, Viola's death also stirs up a local civil rights investigative reporter, a hate-crime syndicate, and many old wounds and personal rivalries. Can Penn clear his father's name before his father is sent to jail?
What I liked: Iles created a multilayered story that exposes some of the ugliness of the Jim Crow South and the still-unresolved racial divide. Although the bulk of the novel takes place in modern times, there are references to the postwar years, Korea, and the tumultuous 1960s. The description of the hate crimes and the people who instigated them are not for the weak-stomached. Iles tells it like it is/was. The characters and the emotional connections between them are realistic, and the complex political, ethical, and philosophical issues left me with a lot to think about.
What I didn't like: Iles packs quite a bit of story in this novel, and much of the background is given in long speeches in which one character is telling another about some important past event. There are also a number of passages in which characters are remembering their youth, so that readers can grasp the complexity of the situation or understand the motives or true beliefs of the individual in question. After awhile, however, I just craved more firsthand action instead the long recollections.
The ending: I got my wish for a lot of action here. The last quarter or so of Natchez Burning is pretty gripping: murders, potential killings, red herrings, people on the run, people getting captured . . . much to keep my interest. On the other hand, the ending doesn't resolve many issues, and we're left hanging as to the consequences of the final scenes. Iles has two more books planned for this story (book two is coming out this month), but I would have liked to have had a bit more resolution here.
Recommendations: I have mixed feelings about Natchez Burning. On the one hand, Greg Iles is a solid writer who is tackling important and difficult issues about hate and prejudice that still exist, even in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, I thought the book dragged in places and I didn't love the changes in point of view (third person to first person and back again). In the end, I'd give this book a solid three stars, meaning that it's worth reading, despite its flaws. Note that I do plan to read the other two books in the series because I've come to care about Penn Cage and his family. (See my thoughts on the audiobook, which could have affected my reactions to the novel.)
Audiobook: I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Harper Audio; 35 hr, 53 min) read by David Ledoux, who put in a nice performance. His pacing was spot-on and his characterizations were solid. I don't know the subtleties of Southern accents, but I thought Ledoux's accents were fine. Sometimes, however, a great narration cannot compensate for the problems in a novel. I ended up listening to this book on double time, just to get through some of the scenes in which the characters are remembering the past (see above). If I had read Natchez Burning in print, I would likely skimmed some of these parts. So again, I have a mixed recommendation: good performance, but you might want to up the speed on your player.
Here is Greg Iles, talking about Natchez Burning and the planned trilogy.
Published by HarperCollins / William Morrow, 2014
Source: Review (audio & eBook) (see review policy)
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