Released April, 2014
Bottom Line: Read it.
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Penn Cage, former prosecutor and current Mayor of Natchez, teams up with a local reporter to fight the accusation that his Doctor father murdered his former nurse, and in the process, find themselves in the middle of a battle over decades old Civil Rights murders.
Natchez Burning is a sweeping epic of Civil Rights in Natchez, Mississippi, from the 1960s to present day and is the first of three books in a series. Don’t be afraid of the length – Natchez Burning is absolutely gripping and reads like a John Grisham thriller…making you forget it’s 800 pages long!
Through his “off the books” investigation into the accusations against his pillar of the community father (Dr. Tom Cage), Penn encounters the Double Eagles*, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan that terrorized Natchez in the 1960’s. He teams up with Henry Sexton, a local reporter who has been investigating several unsolved 1960’s murders that were rumored to have been committed by the Double Eagles and is pulled into a dangerous world where the terror of the KKK and its offshoots is alive and well today.
I was immediately enthralled with Natchez Burning – there is so much going on right out of the gates that I wondered where Iles was going to go with the story for another 600 pages! Not to worry, he found TONS of places to go! Not only is Penn struggling to save his father (and dealing with the emotional issues that come with realizing a parent may not be the pinnacle of integrity that everyone thinks), but you also have the KKK and the Double Eagles, local police, the Mafia (Carlos Marcello), prominent businessmen, the FBI, civil rights activists, and the politics of rebuilding New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. All these elements fight it out in a cesspool of corruption and lawlessness right out of the Wild West – how can this story not be completely gripping?! The book’s lesson from all of this: “none of us truly knows anybody”.
Iles does a great job of completely immersing the reader in that world. I could feel the fear, danger, and evil jumping off the pages. No one is safe and the “take the law into your own hands” atmosphere that you think was confined to the Civil Rights era is actually thriving in Iles’ present day.
Iles also poses some fascinating “what if” scenarios (events that probably didn’t happen, but possibly could have) about real life events, specifically the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. This was a shrewd move considering how much speculation and how many conspiracy theories still exist about these three murders, giving the reader the feeling that Natchez Burning‘s version of events is in the realm of the possible. I’m a total sucker for these kinds of things and this aspect of the book reminded me of bit of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, one of my all-time favorites.
Despite its length, Natchez Burning was a book I did not want to put down and I can’t wait for the next installment of the series (supposedly coming out in the next year or two). It’s going on my Time to Kill and Books for Guys lists and will absolutely make an appearance on my Best Books of the Year List this December (click here for last year’s list).
*Obviously, I was curious if the Double Eagles or a similar group may have existed in real life in 1960’s Mississippi….so I took to Google and found an article outlining the real-life events and people featured in Natchez Burning. The fictional Double Eagles are based on a KKK splinter cell called The Silver Dollar Group, fictional Concordia Beacon journalist Henry Sexton is based on the real life Concordia Sentinel journalist Stanley Nelson, and the fictional Albert Norris (owner of Norris’ Music Emporium and one of the story’s central murder victims) is based on the real life shoe store owner and murder victim, Frank Morris. The fact that Natchez Burning is based on real events and people takes it to a whole other level of fascinating for me!
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11/22/63 by Stephen King