Natchez Burning (The Trial of Tom Cage, Book 1)
HarperCollins (UK: 13th March 2014; AU: 1st April 2014; US & CA: 29th April 2014)
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A 791-page tome is a big ask. Especially considering it’s a thriller, and the first in a trilogy – is it possible to keep the tension going for so long? Greg Iles is no ordinary writer, and thus he succeeds where others wouldn’t.
It’s also quite a challenge to write about racism and prejudice, and the author asks all the tough questions, with even more uncomfortable answers. And that’s the point: people are often prejudiced, though they don’t mean to be. Even thinking of someone as “exotic,” and admitting that’s part of the allure – this is prejudice, and Tom Cage acknowledges that. In a promotional video, the author says, “No one is immune to prejudice,” and this book shows that truth.
This is Mississippi. Even in my high school in far away Australia, studying the film Mississippi Burning was part of the English curriculum. Although the lead characters love Natchez, they know the way the town is run and the things that happen in it are far from perfect. As mayor, Penn Cage does what he can, but even he is way out of his league when dealing with the likes of the Double Eagles and their descendants. What starts as trying to get his father off a murder charge soon becomes just the tip of the iceberg.
And it’s horrific to read. But important. Hate crimes, and crimes against those trying to atone for their past, should not be easy to face, should not be swept under the carpet. But in the midst of all this terrible stuff are some real heroes: Albert Norris, whose music shop serves as a secret rendezvous for interracial couples. Henry Sexton, who investigates these cold cases for decades, even though it seriously endangers him and everyone he cares about. And Sleepy Johnston, who could be the key to providing evidence.
Though Penn, Caitlin, and Tom are the lead characters, they are not the real heroes. Not even they are above underhanded tactics to get what they want, and sometimes they are really freaking annoying. But these flaws make them more believable.
And then there’s Katy, whose own father punished her for the supposed “crime” of loving a black boy. The repercussions continue, and this subplot is of particular interest to me because of the sanatorium element. Hopefully this is further explored later.
There are no happy endings here, but with time (over the remainder of the trilogy) maybe a little bit of justice can be served. The problem with reading a book as soon as it’s released is that it makes the wait until the next novel even longer. But in the hands of Greg Iles, the wait will likely be worth it for readers. Looking forward to The Bone Tree in 2015…