Game of Thrones' season finale Sunday left me hungering for another epic tale, so I settled on Greg Iles' Natchez Burning.
At nearly 800 pages, Iles' new thriller has the size of a fantasy novel and certainly enough characters with slowly revealed, complex back stories to fill any city in Westeros. But the tale doesn't need white walkers to provide its terrors in the night. America's own horrific and very real history of racial conflict and white privilege does that all on its own.
Natchez Burning takes place in the town of Natchez Mississippi, a locale central to several of Iles' stories and the writer's own life. It also features Penn Cage, now the mayor, who has starred in some of Iles' earlier works. Natchez Burning is the first installment of a trilogy in which Penn Cage must unravel his father's secrets and his family's long history both battling and staying abreast of the Klu Klux Klan.
The novel opens with the death of Viola Turner, a former nurse of Penn's well-respected, Caucasian physician father who was suffering from terminal cancer. Penn's father, Tom, is accused of assisted suicide, a charge that is later upgraded to murder at the insistence of Viola's son. The man believes Tom Cage silenced Viola before she could reveal damaging secrets. Tom, wracked with guilt over something from his past and propelled by a desire to protect someone important, refuses to speak to Penn about what happened to Viola.
In Penn's efforts to clear his father's name, he discovers that Viola was horribly victimized by an offshoot of the KKK in a greater effort to lure a prominent civil rights activist out of hiding, kill him, and ultimately draw Bobby Kennedy to Mississippi in order to be assassinated. Tom's father had a role in saving her, but was there more to their relationship? The assassination plot is fueled by a very wealthy, sadistic man who will stop at nothing to hide his past.
My favorite parts of this book were the rich descriptions of Mississippi and its cold cases. The past crimes that lead to the book's violent conclusion are made all the more terrifying and gripping because it's clear that they are steeped in fact. Reading was an education and reminder of a time in America's all-too-near past when people of color could be killed with impunity and the law enforcement system existed largely to maintain a racial divide.
It was particularly interesting to read this book at a time when the brutal treatment of African Americans and other people of color by members of law enforcement is again a topic of national discussion. Reading Iles' book, it's clear that America's history of racial suppression at the hands of law enforcement, particularly in the south, was so violent that a few generations of progress would still not be enough to completely change the system or the hearts of all those attracted to it.
For most of this book, I didn't drink anything because there was too much truth to feel comfortable relaxing as I read. I did start the book with a nice Sangria made from Decoy Sauvignon Blanc, raspberries, strawberries, limes, oranges and a bit of Cointreau. Things are sweeter when diverse flavors mix, mingle and blend together.