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THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (4): The Natchez Trilogy by Greg Iles

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Greg_IlesGreg Iles was born in Stuttgart where his father ran the US Embassy medical clinic. When the family returned to the States they settled in Natchez, Mississippi. While studying at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Iles stayed in a cottage where Caroline ‘Callie’ Barr Clark once lived. Callie was William Faulkner’s ‘Mammy Callie’ and different versions of her appear in several of Faulkner’s books. Iles began writing novels in 1993, with a historical saga about the enigmatic Nazi Rudolf Hess, and has written many stand-alone thrillers, but it is his epic trilogy of novels set in Natchez which, in my view, set him apart from anyone else who has ever written in the Southern Noir genre.

Natchez, Mississippi. Just under 16,000 souls. A small town with a big history. It perches on a bluff above the Mississippi River, and some folk reckon they can still hear the ghosts of paddle steamers chunking away down there on the swirling brown waters. The central character in Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood is Penn Cage. Cage is the classic enlightened white liberal character of Southern Noir. His background is privileged; his father, Tom, is a doctor who is hugely respected by the black community in the area for his colour blind approach to his vocation. Medical bills too numerous to mention have been written off over the years, and Cage senior is the closest thing to a living saint but, of course, he is regarded with a mixture of fear, distrust and loathing by Natchez residents who still hang portraits of Robert E Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest in their hallways. Penn says of him:

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Penn Cage, though, has made his own money. He is a hugely successful author, long-time DA for the County and now, after a bitter political struggle, The Mayor of Natchez. He has made many enemies in his rise to fame, not the least of which are the corrupt Sheriff Byrd and the deeply ambitious and oleaginous public prosecutor Shadrach Johnson. Cage is not without his own ghosts, however, and he is haunted by the death of his wife Sarah, crippled and then tortured by cancer. He has, however, established an unofficial second marriage with the campaigning journalist, Caitlin Masters.

The politically correct and socially comfortable world inhabited by Penn Cage and his family is about to suffer a brutal invasion. Hidden deep at the end of the rutted dirt road which leads away from the relatively polite discourse between liberals and conservatives in Natchez society, is a dark and dangerous place occupied by a group of men known as the Double Eagles. They are united by a bitterness provoked by their view that the Ku Klux Klan went soft. Their anger, however, was not limited to tearful and rancorous drinking sessions around some backwoods table, but was the match that lit the gunpowder trail to a devastating explosion of focused violence which resulted in the assassinations of the three Ks – Kennedy, Kennedy – and King.

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Of course, Iles takes a great risk here. We know – or think we know – who killed these three men. But do we? Iles is confident and fluent enough to turn history on its head and present a credible alternative truth. While the Double Eagles are concerned with matters of national importance, they also have time for vicious local issues. The bombshell which threatens to reduce to ruins the cosy edifice of the Cage family, is that Tom Cage fell in love with a black nurse who worked for him, fathered a son by her, but then sat back and watched as she fled north to Chicago in disgrace. When she returns to Natchez to die, riddled by cancer, what she and Tom Cage knew – and did – about the malevolent Double Eagles back in the day becomes a public shit-storm.

The Bone Tree is a terrible place. Deep in a snake and gator-infested swamp it is an ancient cypress tree where generations of slave owners and white supremacists have taken their black victims and executed them, For Tom Cage’s nurse, Viola Turner, it is a place of nightmares, because under its rotten and gnarled branches her brother was tortured, mutilated and executed.

Tom Cage is accused of mercy killing Viola. Unwilling to face the public disgrace, he goes on te run with a couple of a trusted former Korean War buddy, and they outwit the authorities for a time. Eventually, Tom Cage is captured and put on trial for murder. He refuses the help of his son and, instead, relies on the charismatic courtroom presence of Quentin Avery, a celebrated black lawyer. Mississippi Blood contains one of the best courtroom scenes I have ever read. I realise this feature is 700 words in with not a critical word, but each of the three novels is a lengthy read by any standards, being well north of 600 pages in each case.

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So why are the books so good? Penn Cage is a brilliant central character and, of course, he is politically, morally and socially ‘a good man’. His personal tragedies evoke sympathy, but also provide impetus for the things he says and does. Some might criticise the lack of nuance in the novels; there is no moral ambiguity – characters are either venomous white racists or altruistic liberals. Maybe the real South isn’t that simple; perhaps there are white communities who are blameless and tolerant and shrink in revulsion from dark deeds committed by fearsome ex-military psychopaths who seek to restore a natural order that died a century earlier.

The world of crime fiction – peopled by writers. readers, publishers and critics – is overwhelmingly progressive, liberal minded and sympathetic to persecuted minorities, and so it should be. It is probably just as well, however, that embittered, dispossessed and marginalised white communities in Mississippi, Texas. Louisiana and other heartlands of The South are not great CriFi readers. Penn Cage fights a battle that definitely needs fighting. Greg Iles has given Cage a voice, and has written a majestic trilogy which sets in stone the chapter and verse about generations of Southern people whose hands drip blood and guilt in equal measure. Maybe the moral perspective is very one-sided, and perhaps the books pose as many questions as they answer, but for sheer readability, authenticity and narrative drive, Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood have laid down a literary challenge which will probably never be answered.

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THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (2): Tropes, Tribes and Trauma

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An opening word or three about the taxonomy of some of the crime fiction genres I am investigating in these features. Noir has an urban and cinematic origin – shadows, stark contrasts, neon lights blinking above shadowy streets and, in people terms, the darker reaches of the human psyche. Authors and film makers have always believed that grim thoughts, words and deeds can also lurk beneath quaint thatched roofs, so we then have Rural Noir, but this must exclude the kind of cruelty carried out by a couple of bad apples amid a generally benign village atmosphere. So, no Cosy Crime, even if it is set in the Southern states, such as Peaches and Scream, one of the Georgia Peach mysteries by Susan Furlong, or any of the Lowcountry novels of Susan M Boyer. Gothic – or the slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothick – will take us into the realms of the fantastical, the grotesque, and give us people, places and events which are just short of parody. So we can have Southern Noir and Southern Gothic, but while they may overlap in places, there are important differences.

I believe there are just two main tropes in Southern Noir and they are closely related psychologically as they both spring from the same historical source, the war between the states 1861 – 1865, and the seemingly endless fallout from those bitter four years. Despite having a common parent the two tropes are, literally, of different colours. The first is set very firmly in the white community, where the novelists find deprivation, a deeply tribal conservativism, and a malicious insularity which has given rise to a whole redneck sub-genre in music, books and film, with its implications of inbreeding, stupidity and a propensity for violence.

Real-life rural poverty in the South was by no means confined to former slaves and their descendants. In historical fact, poor white farmers in the Carolinas, for example, were often caught up in a vicious spiral of borrowing from traders and banks against the outcome of their crop; when time came for payback, they were often simply back to zero, or ALMKTHthrown off the land due to debt. The rich seam of dirt poor and embittered whites who turn to crime in their anger and resentment has been very successfully mined by novelists. Add a touch of fundamentalist Christianity into the pot and we have a truly toxic stew, such as in Wiley Cash’s brilliant A Land More Kind Than Home (2013).

No-one did sadistic and malevolent ‘white trash’ better than Jim Thompson. His embittered, cunning and depraved small town Texas lawman Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (1952) is one of the scariest characters in crime fiction, although it must be said that Thompson’s bad men – and women – were not geographically confined to the South.

Although not classed as a crime writer, Flannery O’Connor write scorching stories about the kind of moral vacuum into which she felt Southern people were sucked. She said, well aware of the kind of lurid voyeurism with which her home state of Georgia was viewed by some:

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 20.13.46Her best known novel, Wiseblood (1952) contains enough bizarre, horrifying and eccentric elements to qualify as Gothick. Take a religiously obsessed war veteran, a profane eighteen-year-old zookeeper, prostitutes, a man in a gorilla costume stabbed to death with an umbrella, and a corpse being lovingly looked after by his former landlady, you have what has been described as a work of “low comedy and high seriousness”

There are a couple of rather individual oddities on the Fully Booked website, both slanted towards True Crime, but drenched through with Southern sweat, violence and the peculiar horrors of the US prison system. The apparently autobiographical stories by Roy Harper were apparently smuggled out of the notorious Parchman Farm and into the hands of an eager publisher. Make of that what you will, but the books are compellingly lurid. Merle Temple’s trilogy featuring the rise and fall of Michael Parker, a Georgia law enforcement officer, comprises A Ghostly Shade of Pale, A Rented World and The Redeemed. I only found out after reading and reviewing the books that they too are personal accounts.

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The second – and more complex (and controversial) trope in Southern Noir is the tortuous relationship between white people both good and bad, and people of colour. My examination of this will follow soon.

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