One of the finest works of Southern fiction ever written was Robert Penn Warren's ALL THE KING'S MEN. It has been made into two films, and the original featured an Oscar-winning performance by Broderick Crawford as the extremely driven and easily misguided Willie Stark. It was not until Greg Iles' protagonist, Penn Cage, that I encountered another character who so embodied everything that was right about Gothic Southern fiction.
MISSISSIPPI BLOOD is the final novel in Iles’ Natchez Burning trilogy --- and it may be the best of a stellar trio of thrillers. At nearly 700 pages, this is a lengthy and weighty work. The highest compliment I can pay is that I was not bored for a single page. Iles was able to pack so much tension in each passing moment that I barely had time to breathe, let alone notice what page I was on.
"[N]ot since The Lord of the Rings have I enjoyed the closing title in a trilogy this much.... The book deserves to be placed directly on the shelf next to...ALL THE KING'S MEN and Harper Lee's classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as the finest Gothic Southern novels of the modern age."
The bulk of the novel is set in a courtroom, and the action within is some of the most electric and consistently surprising legal chills and thrills I have ever read. The prologue opens with a stunning statement that really sets the tone for what is to come: “Grief is the most solitary emotion; it makes islands of us all.” There are so many characters in this wonderful trilogy who are going through their own emotional turmoil that readers can only fasten their seatbelts in anticipation of the oncoming collision that will occur when they all come together at the right moment.
The prologue also has special meaning for Iles. This is found in the passage that refers to Highway 61 in Natchez. It is this very same road where he was involved in a car accident that nearly cost him his life. I'm sure the creation of this trilogy was quite cathartic for him.
MISSISSIPPI BLOOD centers on a court case that finds Penn Cage acting as co-counsel in defense of his father, Dr. Tom Cage, who has been accused of murder. The victim is Viola Turner, a retired nurse who was also Tom’s former lover. Viola was African American, and their elicit tryst was not one that was looked upon too kindly in Mississippi.
Penn is sure his father is innocent, even though Tom wants to plead guilty. He feels that all fingers point to the hated Double Eagle splinter group of the KKK led by the nefarious Snake Knox. However, it will take a lot of proof to get Tom off the hook. The trouble Penn and his colleagues are facing is that the lead counsel on the case, Quentin Avery, is not objecting to anything that prosecutor Shad Johnson presents with his side of the case. Does Quentin have some secret game plan no one else knows about, or is he sabotaging the case? As both co-counsel and the town Mayor, Penn is hesitant to overstep his position in the case, but he also does not want to see his father go down for murder without a fight.
It is difficult to go into much detail on this amazing court case without giving something away. The true delight in this novel is having the reader experience each revelation and attempt to recover before the next twist occurs. The case is definitely an uphill battle and not made easier by the fact that Judge Joe Elder appears at times to be behaving like co-counsel on the side of the prosecution. There is not a single character here who escapes unscathed from this court battle, and secrets about everyone seem to come out at the most unpredictable moments.
I could not get enough of MISSISSIPPI BLOOD, and not since The Lord of the Rings have I enjoyed the closing title in a trilogy this much. All the characters go through their personal trials, and Penn Cage is taken on a journey that will cost him many of the people he loves most in the world --- and possibly his own life. The book deserves to be placed directly on the shelf next to the aforementioned ALL THE KING'S MEN and Harper Lee's classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as the finest Gothic Southern novels of the modern age.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 23, 2017