Greg 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:
enn 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.
f 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.
o 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.