A steamy, swampy tale of international nastiness by accomplished thriller writer Iles (True Evil, 2006, etc.).
Penn Cage, steely protagonist of two previous novels (The Quiet Game, 1999; Turning Angel, 2005), is now mayor of Natchez, Miss., and, after something of a midlife crisis involving both widowhood and a career change, heading deep into middle age. Penn reconnects with a childhood friend who brings him dark word of bad things happening down in the Devil’s Punchbowl, a hollow off the Mississippi River where bad guys have long disposed of their victims. The bad guys are no longer the river rats and Confederate deserters of old; now they come from all over the world—the toughest of them, it seems, from Ireland—to do a thriving trade in illegal things surrounding the already lucrative business of legalized gambling. Those things include drugs, underage prostitution, white slavery and dogfighting. The novel’s perfectly rendered atmospherics and sometimes depressive sense of miasmal gloom (“I’d be dog bait, and that’s a truly terrible way to die”) frequently invoke Faulkner, though Iles’ prose is more straightforward. The mayhem is altogether postmodern, a perfect vehicle for Billy Bob Thornton (as heavy or hero, your pick) and a shattering experience for everyone involved, not least Cage’s sometime girlfriend, who finds herself deeper in the mire than anyone might have wanted, and his boyhood pal, for whom things do not turn out happily. Strong characters, male and female; utterly convincing villains in Brooks Brothers suits and private jets; and a believable premise. All these elements add up to a tale that ends, yes, on the promise of a sequel to come.
Just right for beach reading at Gulfport—or Tunica, for that matter: a whodunit that aspires to literature, albeit of the Southern Gothic variety.