Greg Iles’ new novel is a stunning achievement, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Set in the Mississippi River towns of Ferriday, La., and Natchez, Miss.—Iles’ hometown—Natchez Burning interweaves murder mysteries, separated by decades, that resurrect the searing violence of the civil rights era. Iles pulls no punches in re-creating the racism that has the power to warp people and impel them to commit brutal crimes against other humans. Yet the novel doesn’t wallow in a morass of evil. It’s anchored, morally speaking, by characters whose integrity, courage and bonds of love move them to acts of heroism.
At the heart of Natchez Burning is a filial relationship that links the two mystery plots. The (fictional) mayor of Natchez, Penn Cage, and his father, Dr. Tom Cage, are characters whom fans of Iles will recall from some of his previous 14 novels—13 of them best-sellers. Iles commented in October on his desire to go back to Penn Cage every few years: “Like an old friend, Penn would call to me, or whisper some juicy gossip, and out of that world would come a story. Of all my characters, Penn and his father offered windows into my own life and world—into Mississippi, and through it, into America.” So it happens again in Iles’ newest novel, though with a twist: Here, Penn’s trust in his widely revered father is put to the test when Dr. Cage is charged with murdering his former nurse.
Its epic length (almost 800 pages) and subject matter aside, Natchez Burning is arguably a literary miracle. In 2011, Iles nearly lost his life. “As I pulled onto Highway 61 near Natchez, a truck slammed into my car door at 70 m.p.h.,” he says. “Shattered bones make a hell of a wake-up call, but when you tear your aorta, as I did, you truly shake hands with death. After eight days in a coma, I learned that I would lose my right leg but not my life. More important, my brain was unhurt, my mind intact. I could still write.” Wow, can he ever.