Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What we're reading: A trilogy? A series?

Here's the story: I was poking around looking for something new to read, and I found the mystery Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles, on the New Books shelf at the library. I had read a previous book (Dead Sleep) by Iles, and given it five stars and a good review. It was a little graphic and a little frantic, but it was a smart and well-paced thriller, so I was already a fan. Natchez Burning sounded interesting and weirdly topical, given the current headlines about Black Lives Matter, and also a break from my usual mystery fare (which is mostly British-based for some reason), but when I looked it up on Goodreads, there was some confusion: Natchez Burning is listed as #4 in the Penn Cage series, but then when you read the introduction, it says "the first installment in an epic trilogy." But since the previous three books were indeed about the same protagonist, and since I am a stickler for reading series in order, I went ahead and read The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, and The Devil's Punchbowl before tackling Natchez.

Well! Those three books were good, and even though the events of each transpired either immediately or soon after the events of the previous, they all acted like stand-alone books, in that they each had a story arc that resolved at the end of that novel, which I liked.

In The Quiet Game, Texas prosecuting attorney Penn Cage's life has been forever altered by the death of his young wife. He packs up his little daughter and heads back to Natchez, Mississippi, his hometown and where his parents still live, to give himself a chance to heal, and to give his daughter an extended family to support her. Almost the minute he arrives, though, he gets caught up in solving a 30-year-old murder of a black man whose killers would just as soon keep the case a mystery.

This book is packed with content. Murder is the least of it--betrayal, graft, political maneuvering, multiple love interests to sweeten the deal--there's a little bit of everything. Sometimes I find that confusing or distracting, but this book also had a logical progression to its complexity that I enjoyed and was able to follow and appreciate. I liked the characterizations--they had some emotional depth. The unexpected twists and turns were surprising and engaging, and although he pulled a bit of a Hail Mary pass at the end, it worked with the rest of the plot.

Turning Angel was a segue into a completely different arena. Two teens are murdered, and the privileged white residents of Natchez get their eyes opened wide about the drug use and sexual maturity of their children.

There were some negative opinions on Goodreads about the way Iles treated the subject matter, but I thought it was dealt with in a thoughtful and even-handed manner. Yes, the themes were uncomfortable, and inappropriate, and in some cases also hard to believe. But I liked all the inner dialogue and tension around the conflicts and confusions of the people involved.

Ironically, while none of that bothered me, I was somewhat disappointed by the way this book turned about halfway through. There's a long lead-in to the arrest and the trial, a prominent attorney is hired to defend the guy...but then we don't get to see any of the trial, the book takes a segue in another direction, and the character of the attorney might as well not have been included (except as a set-up for a future book). It also bothered me that much of the interaction between Penn and his new girlfriend, journalist Caitlin Masters (left over from the end of The Quiet Game) about where their relationship was going ended up happening mostly "off camera" and was simply summed up later in the book in a few short sentences. So, I didn't enjoy Turning Angel as much as the previous book, but it was still good enough to lead me to the next one...

In The Devil's Punchbowl, Penn Cage has successfully run for mayor of his hometown, and is now up against it to make good on his campaign promises. He gets distracted from the major issue of the Mississippi public education system, however, when disturbing evidence surfaces that criminals are using the tourism provided by the Magnolia Queen, a river boat casino parked on the mighty Mississippi below the Natchez bluff, to run a highly illegal and morally questionable enterprise (dog fighting) on the side.

This book was definitely up to Greg Iles's usual standards--intricately plotted and full of surprises. It also, however, featured some rather gruesomely graphic imagery that I could have lived without. Don't get me wrong--the story required it. I just wish I didn't know that there were people in the world who would do those kinds of things to dogs. I'm not naive, and I do support a couple of rescue organizations that deal with some of the horrific results of human cruelty to animals, but...if you're a dog-lover (or squeamish) (or both), you might not want to read this.

Having finished this marathon read of three books numbering their pages in the 500s and 600s in preparation for the book in which I was originally interested, in all innocence I then proceeded to check out Natchez Burning.

(For those interested in the author, this is his first book in five years because he was in a horrific car accident in which he lost a leg. Judging by this book and the next, the accident didn't mess with any other abilities in the least!)

Natchez is complicated, convoluted, multi-layered, and pretty grim, with multiple bad guys, multiple murders, multiple innocent and not-so-innocent victims, multiple police, federal, and independent agencies (the Texas Rangers, for crying out loud) on the multiple cases, and covering a span of history from the 1940s to the present, touching on some famous cases from the 1960s. And...791 pages later, I discovered that it ends on a cliffhanger. Yes, this trilogy, unlike its predecessors, is an actual three-part story, and Iles has so far taken five pages shy of 1600 pages (in this and the next book) to tell it!

When I got done with Natchez, I almost stopped there...but I had already checked its sequel, The Bone Tree, out of the library, and I was curious to see where the story would go next. By the middle of this one, though, I was done. Exhausted, wrung out, and, truth be told, a tiny bit bored. (It could have done with about 200 fewer pages.) But...I kept on going, things picked up, and yes, at the end of this book more than a few things have been resolved, thank goodness. Sighs of relief! Nonetheless, there's a whole subset of bad guys still out there, the crime that was possibly committed at the beginning of the novel by Penn Cage's father has still not been addressed, Tom Cage is in jail awaiting trial, and I'm sure there's another 800 pages to come!

Nearly one month after I started the first book...I'm so relieved that Iles isn't finished with that last book yet (it's called Unwritten Laws, and publishes next April), because I would have to read it now. Have to. And I'm really glad that I don't. I'm going to go read a YA romance novel. Seriously. And be happy about it.

Mr. Iles, I will see you later, because your books are smart, thoughtful, and gripping, and I have to know how everything turns out. But don't hurry to finish on my account--I can wait. Whew!

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