In 2014, three years after surviving a near-fatal auto accident, Greg Iles returned to fiction in high style with “Natchez Burning,” a brooding crime novel rooted in the tragic racial history of the American South. One year later, Iles published “The Bone Tree,” a continuation that moved the narrative forward into dark and disturbing new territory. Now, in “Mississippi Blood,” Iles concludes one of the longest, most successfully sustained works of popular fiction in recent memory.
Make no mistake, these three volumes constitute a single story, a vast, intimate epic that must be read in sequence and in full. And if the prospect of committing to a narrative spanning 2,300 pages seems daunting, prepare to be surprised. Iles has always been an exceptional storyteller, and he has invested these volumes with an energy and sense of personal urgency that rarely, if ever, falter.
The narrator of the trilogy is Penn Cage, the lawyer-turned-novelist-turned-mayor of Natchez, who first appeared in “The Quiet Game” (1999). Penn’s father is Tom Cage, a much-loved physician with a dangerous secret. Decades before, in 1968, he entered into a forbidden romantic relationship with his nurse, Viola Turner, who is black. In the aftermath of that affair, Viola exiled herself to Chicago.
As the present-day story begins, Viola has lung cancer and has come home to Natchez to die. Viola has a secret, too: an angry, illegitimate son named Lincoln, who believes that Tom Cage, his biological father, knowingly abandoned him. When Viola dies in what appears to be a botched attempt at euthanasia, Lincoln accuses Tom of murder.
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Like Faulkner before him, Iles believes that the past — in this case, the civil rights era of the 1960s — remains eternally present. Viola is an emblematic victim of the worst atrocities of that era. The sister of a murdered civil rights activist, she was raped by members of the Double Eagles, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, and her return to Natchez raises an alarm among the surviving members, all of whom have reasons to want her dead.
One central question — Who killed Viola Turner? — stands at the center of a web of narratives that range across 50 violent years and encompass a gallery of carefully drawn characters, among them law enforcement officers both honest and corrupt, crusading journalists and assorted victims, black and white. “Mississippi Blood” addresses that question by way of Tom Cage’s murder trial, a dramatic affair worthy of Scott Turow. By the time the trial — and this final novel — ends, we have learned the answer and been forced to take a burning look at some of the most shameful episodes of the recent American past.
“Mississippi Blood” by Greg Iles, William Morrow, 692 pages, $28.99.