In 1946, author Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for ALL THE KING'S MEN. This famous literary novel told the fictional tale of Willie Stark, an ambitious Southern politician who is overcome by lust and greed. Two film versions of this great American classic were made --- one featuring an Oscar-winning turn by Broderick Crawford and, more recently, a remake starring Sean Penn.
Greg Iles has firmly set his sights on creating his own Southern classic that is grounded in both political and social commentary. At nearly 800 pages, NATCHEZ BURNING is his most ambitious novel to date and first in five years. The protagonist is Mayor Penn Cage, a former prosecutor. What is ironic is that this fictional character alleges to be a distant relative of the aforementioned Warren. Thus, Iles has crossed that boundary between reality and fiction, tying together two great stories of Southern noir.
NATCHEZ BURNING is a grand novel that covers over 40 years in the historic town of Natchez, Mississippi, with which Iles has his own history. In 2011, he sustained life-threatening injuries in an automobile accident on Highway 61 near Natchez, ultimately losing part of his right leg. In some way, setting the action of his latest work in Natchez is both cathartic and healing for him.
"Iles has told a deeply personal and moving tale with NATCHEZ BURNING and opened some old wounds. Readers will be spellbound watching the past rear its ugly head and directly influence the present..."
Readers of Iles’s work may remember Penn and his father, Tom, from prior novels like THE QUIET GAME, TURNING ANGEL and THE DEVIL'S PUNCHBOWL. Those were hard-hitting and intense stories, and NATCHEZ BURNING proudly continues that tradition. Penn has always sought justice and truth, and modeled himself after his father, who he always saw as a sort of Atticus Finch figure.
Over the course of this book, Penn finds that justice is not always easy to come by --- particularly in the deep South. This is an area steeped in tradition, some of which involve prejudices that are unshakeable. The novel opens with horrific events involving hate and racism set in the middle of the hotbed Civil Rights movement of the mid-1960s. Correlation to the events depicted in the film Mississippi Burning are described as Iles uses real incidents as a foundation for telling the saga.
In NATCHEZ BURNING, Tom finds himself on the verge of being charged with the murder of his long-time nurse assistant and friend, Viola Turner. Penn is challenged with defending him and finds it to be an uphill battle. Making things worse is the fact that Tom refuses to share certain information that might exonerate him under the premise of client privilege.
Penn's defense overturns Natchez's dark history, which involves the alleged murder of Viola's brother back in the 1960s. A secretive group of KKK members who broke away to form their own faction called the Double Eagles may have been behind that murder, and their influence still remains in the current day.
Iles has told a deeply personal and moving tale with NATCHEZ BURNING and opened some old wounds. Readers will be spellbound watching the past rear its ugly head and directly influence the present as Penn must battle prejudices old and new to find the truth. What I found most prophetic was the quote Iles used from Oscar Wilde: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." I look forward to the continuation of this can’t-miss saga.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on May 2, 2014