I was reluctant to read Natchez Burning by Greg Iles. Having never read him before I wasn’t one of the rabid Iles fans eager for his return to bookstores after his terrible accident (and it was a terrible accident). My reluctance really hinged on only two things; Natchez is set amidst a racist deep south, territory that is well-tread in fiction and hasn’t always been handled well in my opinion and, secondly, it’s over 700 pages long! That’s a huge investment for someone you’ve never read before.
What Iles does in Natchez Burning is create an intense thriller with all the requisite twists and turns—making 700 pages feel like 200. That will be no surprise to anyone who has read him before. But what really pleased me was the terrific characterizations in the book. Natchez isn’t, as I feared, a simple by the numbers story about a decades old crime. Primarily, it is a story about a father and a son and that son’s slow realization that his father isn’t perfect. The son in this case is Penn Cage, our protagonist and mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, and his father is a respected physician beloved by Natchez’s black community for his decades of work in their community and on their behalf. The story begins (as do the mysteries) when Violet Turner, a former nurse of Dr. Cage’s, is killed and the doctor is accused of murder.
Suddenly Penn must deal with the sordid past of his father and his city as well as the possibility that there may be more than one killer roaming the streets of Natchez. For me, what separates Natchez Burning from other books you’ll read this summer is how expertly Iles has woven a plot-driven thriller into the threads of a family drama. To me a great book is one that leaves you asking questions about yourself. How far would you go to protect the ones you love? How do you respond when confronted with realities that break down the myths we build for our parents and family? Is there a balance sheet in life that weighs our good deeds against our sins?
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