Greg Iles clearly knows the south and easily traverses both its landscape and history in his latest riveting literary thriller, THE BONE TREE. Iles is a native of Natchez, Mississippi, and most of the action takes place in or around that town. This is the second installment in a new series featuring lawyer-turned-mayor Penn Cage, following NATCHEZ BURNING.
Typically, a book that is over 800 pages would be too intimidating for many readers. However, there is not a single wasted sentence in this superb novel that explores the dark side of the south. This is an area steeped in tradition and history, much of it quite violent. Beyond that, it is a place filled with anger and deeply set hatred and prejudice that still drives the actions of its residents even today.
The central focus of THE BONE TREE is Penn’s father, Dr. Tom Cage. Tom has secrets and has allegedly been tied to some seriously bad deeds perpetrated by residents of Natchez. Some even escalate to global scale when one of the deepest secrets involves the identity of the actual person who pulled the trigger of the gun that took JFK's life on that fateful day in Dallas in 1963.
"Only a writer at the top of his game like Iles can manage to keep all of these characters relevant and vital while having them explore the darkest and most dangerous events unfolding throughout the book."
There is a new generation of bad people trying to control Natchez and the entire state of Mississippi, most of whom are descendants of the same people who were responsible for a majority of the trouble caused over the past half-century. A hate group that is an offshoot of the KKK, the Double Eagles, are still in the middle of the controversy and shady dealings in the area. One of the leaders of this movement is a man named Forrest Knox. His father, Frank Knox, may have been JFK’s assassin, and Tom may have unwittingly helped him pull it off.
Most recently, the area is mourning the loss of Henry Sexton, a crusading journalist who was pivotal in exposing much of the corrupt practices in the county. Ironically, Penn's fiancée, Caitlin Masters, is herself a journalist and is ready to take up the crusade against the bad men who hold the area in a near death-grip. The Feds are involved in the guise of Special Agent John Kaiser, and he is looking to do his part to bring down the Double Eagles and Forrest Knox.
Kaiser is also one of the few people privy to the rumors behind the JFK assassination --- and it doesn’t stop there. Everyone from MLK to RFK to the young activist college students who were murdered in the 1960s (watch the film Mississippi Burning for more info on that) may be tied to the KKK and the Double Eagles. Penn is a willing partner with anyone looking to stand up against this level of corruption, even if it means having his father pay the price for his own misdeeds.
The symbolic center of the story is the Bone Tree itself, a thing of legend that many area residents have never set eyes on. It has been called the “tree of bones” going back to the Natchez Indian tribes that the town was named after. Recent history found this tree used to torture and hang countless slaves. Rumor has it that the Bone Tree is still used today for evil deeds that defy explanation. Caitlin makes it her mission to find it at all costs. Journalistic endeavors play a major role in the book.
What transpires throughout THE BONE TREE is a myriad of well-developed and interesting characters, some of whom you will root for, others of whom you will hate. Only a writer at the top of his game like Iles can manage to keep all of these characters relevant and vital while having them explore the darkest and most dangerous events unfolding throughout the book. It never fails to hold readers’ interest, and after 800+ pages you will be begging for more.
Ironically, Penn Cage has been seen in a handful of Iles novels prior to this latest trilogy. Fans of those books will enjoy the reference to THE QUIET GAME that is thrown in when highlighting a famous murder in the recent past. No character in THE BONE TREE leaves it the way they started. The scars that are made are permanent, and some will pay the ultimate price in the cause of justice. Southern gothic noir is alive and well in the very able hands of Greg Iles.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on April 24, 2015