In “Natchez Burning,” Greg Iles accomplishes an amazing feat: a 790-page novel whose story never flags. It is the best-selling writer’s 14th novel and his first since 2009. In 2011, Mr. Iles was in a car crash that resulted in the loss of his right leg. Now recovered, he is back with this generous saga that will appeal to anyone whose attention span is long enough for a layered, emotional mystery.
In “Natchez Burning,” Mr. Iles inserts vivid fictional characters into real civil rights-era history. The first 40 pages take place between 1964 and 1968. The remainder is set in 2005, where the death of a woman focuses attention on events that occurred some 40 years before.
In 1964, in Ferriday, La., Norris’ Music Emporium is a place “where black and white could interact with trust and respect rather than fear and hatred.” This comes to a ferocious end after the parish’s richest man, Brody Royal, discovers that his daughter is seeing a black musician.
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Royal is pleased with the Klansmen he hired to take care of his problem and offers to bankroll them for a more important job: the assassination of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
The sinister leader of the group, Frank Knox, says: “The Klan we got now’s about as dangerous as the Garden Club.” So he starts a new operation called the Double Eagles. Knox believes they can lure their target to Mississippi. For bait, they kidnap a young musician named Jimmy Revels, and his friend Luther Davis, who are campaigning among the black community for Bobby Kennedy, now running for president.
Revels and Davis escape but are injured and seek care from doctor Tom Cage and his nurse, Viola Davis, who is Revels’ sister. Doctor and nurse are more than co-workers, but live under the tyranny of an unwritten code: “The real barrier to any relationship: Tom was white and Viola was black. The gulf could not be bridged in Natchez, Mississippi, in the 1960s, not without casualties.”
The story is picked up in 2005 by Dr. Cage’s son, Penn. This is Iles’ fourth novel to feature Penn Cage, who is now mayor of Natchez. Penn is anticipating his wedding to Caitlin Masters, publisher of the Natchez Examiner, when he receives a call that changes everything: Viola Davis has died, and her son, Lincoln Turner, says Tom Cage killed her.
As Penn tries to help his father, he is led to Henry Sexton, a reporter for a weekly paper in Ferriday. Henry believes the old Double Eagles — and their sons — are behind Viola’s death. Their motives are rooted in the past, which he has been working for years to uncover. “Henry wanted to piece together the missing facts like a jigsaw puzzle, then lay out the sequence of crimes like God looking at history.”
Both authentic history and actual current events are injected into Mr. Iles’ tense and dramatic narrative. When he writes, “Brody was working a sweet deal to rig a state contract — the same kind of deal Governor Edwards went to jail for,” Iles mixes his fictional villain with a real one.
References are made to Mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello; Ben Chester White, who was murdered to lure Martin Luther King to Natchez; Trent Lott; and plans to develop Forks in the Road, once the site of the second largest slave market in the nation.
Mr. Iles also gives Brody chilling opinions about Hurricane Katrina: “In less than a week the apocalyptic storm had purged New Orleans of the human filth that had infected and almost killed it. The levees broke, and God swept that city clean like Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Easier to take are Mr. Iles’ descriptions of the 300-year-old town of Natchez, with its antebellum mansions, vast fertile floodplain and two bridges spanning the Mississippi River. Music is often referred to, from Ferriday native Jerry Lee Lewis to Howlin’ Wolf and Susan Werner singing “Barbed Wire Boys.”
With writing on such a grand scale, Mr. Iles’ ending may seem too narrowly focused and many character’s stories are not wrapped up. But that’s because he says this is the first book in a trilogy and promises “The Bone Tree” in 2015 and “Unwritten Laws” in 2016. Until then his fans will be burning with desire.
Margie Romero is communications manager at Pittsburgh Public Theater.