Delta whodunit master Iles (The Bone Tree, 2015, etc.) brings his politically charged, timely trilogy of Mississippi murder and mayhem to a thunderous close.
Life for Penn Cage is never a bowl of cherries. A bucket of blood, more like it. As this last installment in the Natchez Burning trilogy opens, he’s in a bloodier mess than ever, depressed, full of bitter self-awareness: “When someone you love is murdered,” he reflects, “you learn things about yourself you’d give a great deal not to know.” Other questions loom. Why is his jailed father stubbornly clinging to a secret guaranteed to shake up otherwise sleepy Natchez? Now that the Klan-on-steroids villains have come under new management, what kind of awful mischief are they going to make for the place—and how do they figure in that secret, anyway? To begin to answer those questions, Iles swings full circle back into the territory of the first volume and its unlikely archive of once-forbidden, even now fraught interracial relationships; “anyone in possession of those ledgers,” Penn reveals, “would never have to worry about money again, so valuable would they be as a blackmail tool.” No, but there are plenty of other things to worry about, things that make the normally even-keeled Penn feel not so bad about shooting a bad guy in the back, “where I know his heart is pumping violently.” Iles mostly sticks to the format of the hard-boiled procedural, though there’s some nicely wrought courtroom drama here, too, with a none-too-subtle dig at a fellow Southern mysterian: “The why doesn’t come into it. That’s for John Grisham and the Law & Order writers to worry about.” Speedboats, bullets, and floods of the red stuff fly and flow, wrapping up to a clean conclusion—though with the slightest hint of an out, in case Iles decides to stretch the trilogy into another book or two.
Faulkner meets John D. MacDonald, and that’s all to the good. A boisterous, spills-and-chills entertainment from start to finish.