A Brief Foray into an Epic Story: MysteryPeople’s Introductory Guide to Greg Iles’ Natchez Trilogy

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Greg Iles comes to BookPeople to speak and sign Mississippi Blood the stunning conclusion of his Natchez Trilogy featuring long-time character Penn Cage, this upcoming Tuesday, April 18th, at 7 PM. When I first found out we had booked him, I pumped my fist in the air. This guy is a big deal for crime fiction, and for Southern literature as a whole. Before his visit, we thought we’d make a quixotic attempt to summarize the enormous amount of content contained within each massive volume of the trilogy (without giving away any spoilers, of course.)

Iles has been known as a crime writer for some time, yet his Natchez Trilogy has elevated him to the status of a modern-day Faulkner. The three volumes together – Natchez BurningThe Bone Treeand Mississippi Burning – tell a sordid tale of small-town secrets, Southern racism, and the difficult task of achieving justice for the lost and vengeance against the powerful and guilty. Much of his work has featured Penn Cage and his family as they fight against the entrenched racism and dark secrets of their town of Natchez, and the trilogy continues the family’s epic story.

His website’s content emphasizes his position as both the conscience and the tourism bureau of a beautiful and problematic region – you can click to visit Natchez and stay in Iles’ historic building of an office, or scroll down further to read a petition by Mississippi’s most prominent citizens to remove the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi state flag. I recognized a number of crime writers on the list, but it shouldn’t surprise me that a state known for such violence in its past could be a center of writers reckoning with that violence in the present.

Some parts of his trilogy read like the best courtroom dramas, with the action of John Grisham and the powerful language of Harper Lee. Iles tells his tales from multiple perspectives and from multiple time periods, emphasizing the lingering presence of powerful 1960s antagonists into the 90s to shrink our perception of the length of history and to make more immediate the connection between the pre-civil-rights South and its modern-day, theoretically less discriminatory incarnation. As Faulkner once wrote, “the past isn’t dead – it’s not even past,” a phrase that especially rings true in the state of Mississippi, where those responsible for the pain of history faced consequences for their actions years, if not decades, after their initial crimes (if they faced consequences at all).*

Natchez Burning shifts back and forth between the 1960s and the 1990s. The sixties scenes place the brutality of the KKK and similar organizations on full display, while the nineties scenes more subtly address the lingering effects of violence too long ignored and unpunished. In the nineties, Penn Cage, mayor of Natchez, works to clear his father, Dr. Tom Cage, of murder charges after his father is accused of aiding his former nurse and lover, Viola, with her assisted suicide in suspicious circumstances. Viola’s son believes Penn’s father to have committed a racist murder, while flashbacks tell a more complex story of Viola and Dr. Cage’s relationship. Meanwhile, an inquisitive journalist gets some new leads and hopes he’ll finally be able to link the unsolved murders of a series of young black men in the sixties to the Double Eagles, the local racist group responsible for the killings.

The Bone Tree takes up where Natchez Burning left off, as Penn Cage continues to try to clear his father while edging closer to discovering his family’s secrets. The Bone Tree also expands on the vast conspiracy of the previous volume for an entirely fresh take on the JFK assassination. Mississippi Blood violently resolves the loose threads of the previous two novels while going ever deeper into the town’s secrets – including the family ties across racial boundaries that the aging Double Eagles (and many of the townspeople) will do virtually anything to keep from the public light.

Come by the store Tuesday, April 18th, at 7 PM, to hear Greg Iles speak and sign the stunning conclusion to his Natchez trilogy. You can find copies of Mississippi Blood on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

*A Washington Post review of The Bone Tree also uses this quote to describe Iles’ work, but I read that review after I dropped in the quote, so I’m keeping it.
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