Category: Mystery (Page 1 of 6)

Halloween Double Feature: ‘Burntown’ & ‘Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore’

Halloween. It’s almost here!

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I am proud to present my second annual pair of Halloween reading recommendations. Both novels are are just fantastic, creepy mysteries. Both of these are a little light on supernatural mischief, but no less spooky for it. Truly, the scariest thing to confront is the possibility that the monster is actually inside any one of us.

burntownThe first book I would like to recommend is Burntown by Jennifer McMahon. This mystery tells the story of Necco, a teenage street urchin once known as Eva Sandeski. Necco used to have a picturesque home life, with a brother and two loving parents, but one night, ‘the Great Flood’ (as she remembers it) changes all that. She lives on the streets of Ashford, Vermont, with her half-deranged mother, who has taken in with a local cult of four mysterious women called the Fire Eaters who ingest the Devil’s Snuff for visions from the Great Mother. I know this book sounds a little out there, but that sentence contains some of the book’s most outrageous elements. Well, that and the telephone that can speak to the dead, whose plans have been passed down the Sandeski family, and may be at the root of all their misfortune.

What I really loved about Burntown, besides the crackerjack, page-turning momentum, were the characters. Besides Necco, the novel follows the intertwined stories of Theo, a local, lone wolf overachiever for whom a chance love affair draws her into a drug-dealing operation; and Pru, the gargantuan lunch lady at the local Catholic school who dreams of being the star of the circus—and then paramour of local delivery man and part-time detective Mr. Marcelle. All three characters have fantastically defined motivations, which make their characters seem real and dynamic. The setting of Ashford (and its alter ego Burntown) is almost a character itself. It has an uncanny, unstuck-in-time quality that seems to reinforce that the main characters must figure their own problems out, because the cavalry is not coming to save them.

midnight at the bright ideasThe second recommendation I have for you is Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan. Sullivan is a former bookseller at the Tattered Cover Book Store, an esteemed indie in Denver. The action in this thriller begins where and when as described in the title, at a fictional bookstore in the Lower Downtown section of Denver. Out protagonist, Lydia, is a regular bookseller recovering from a long-ago dark past. She looks after the local vagabond BookFrogs (so named for their resemblance in her mind to Mr. Jeremy Fisher) that populate Bright Ideas during business hours. One of the youngest, and most mysterious, of these BookFrogs in Joey Molina, barely out of his teens but already irreparably damaged in some way. When Lydia finds Joey has hanged himself in the Western History alcove, she is saddened and disturbed. And when she finds a childhood picture of herself in his pocket, she is also frightened, for she is about to be thrust back into her traumatic past.

Lydia was the lone escapee of a crime that was particularly grisly and remains locally infamous. Lydia has to solve the mystery of why Joey killed himself, helped along by his odd, bibliographic clues, but also finds herself pondering the events of her childhood and the night of the Hammer Man, who murdered an entire family when Lydia was staying at their house at history’s worst sleepover. She has to revisit both her past and explore Joey’s, confront her estranged father, and keep her current life together in the process before she finds any peace.

James Joyce said it best: history is a nightmare from which we struggle to awake. That can be either cultural or personal. But these gripping mysteries remind us that we don’t have to go looking for terror this Halloween, because there is often something within our own memory that lives with us always.

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Be Hair Now: ‘Norma’ by Sofi Oksanen

normaYou might think that having magic hair that’s attuned to your emotions would be a blessing, but the titular character in Norma (by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen) would disagree. Norma is an ordinary woman whose hair corkscrews and kinks when she feels strong emotions, such as danger or guilt. It also happens to grow about a meter a day, causing Norma to have to constantly cut it off so that no one notices. The only person that knows Norma’s secret is her mother, Anita.

As it happens, Norma opens up on the day of Anita’s funeral. Anita has committed suicide by throwing herself in front of train, or so we’re led to believe. The first inkling Norma has that something is off is when her hair starts to corkscrew when meeting a stranger at the funeral.

While it is Norma’s name who’s on the cover, I think it’s safe to say that this book actually has three main characters. Norma, obviously, is the focus of book, but alternating chapters are in a woman named Marion’s point of view. Marion is the daughter of Anita’s best friend. Marion works for her father in the seedy underworld of the hair extension business. The third main character is Anita herself. Through video diaries that Anita has left for Norma to find, Norma finds out the history of why her hair is the way it is.

There are lots of little kinks and turns in that lead you down paths you hadn’t fathomed would happen. The sub-chapters are short so it feels as if you’re flying through; I read the first half of the book in a span of about two and a half hours. Normally, I don’t like alternating points of view, but I think it’s masterfully done in Norma. I’m invested in both Norma and Marion, so I didn’t feel impatient while reading through one or the other. On the surface this may seem like a book about hair, but it’s so much more. It’s an artful look into what would happen if your best asset was also your worst, if your blessing was also your curse.

Ace Atkin’s Quinn Colson is back as sheriff in ‘The Fallen’

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 27)

Fans of Oxford novelist Ace Atkins will savor the butt-kickin’ return of protagonist Quinn Colson as sheriff in The Fallen (G.P. Putnam).

atkins fallenAll the familiar denizens of the fictional town of Jericho, Mississippi, (faintly like the Oxford we all know, perhaps stripped to its roots) are there–if not in person, then in memory.

Loyal, tough-as-nails, and sharpshooter deputy Lillie Virgil is there–but for how long? The loyal one-armed mechanic, Boom, is there; this time, sleuthing out the mystery of two missing teens as the behest of Colson’s sister, Caddy, behind the sheriff’s back.

His Elvis-worshipping momma Jean is there, still dishing out heaping helpings of Southern food and sound advice.

The major clash is a trio of ex-Marines who, having returned from war, want excitement, cash, and blood through heists while brandishing weapons and wearing Donald Trump masks (complete with R-rated quotes from the president while robbing banks).

In many ways, book 7 in the Colson series is like many of the others: Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger, enjoys tooling around in a big pickup (the Green Machine), smoking cigars (now Drew Estate Undercrowns over his previously preferred La Gloria Cubana), and finding himself in binds caused by the local good ol’ boy power structure while dealing with deadly scofflaws.

His love life is still hopelessly conflicted , with the rekindled romance of his high school sweetheart now a hurtful memory, the fling with the coroner Ophelia Bundren cut short after she threw a steak knife at him, and the continuing unresolved tension with Virgil.

But there’s a new woman in town, Maggie Powers, who it turns out, used to run with Colson when they were kids.

She’s grown up nicely–but has conflicts and dangers of her own.

This time around, there’s a new owner of the strip club/rent-by-the-hour motel on the interstate: Fannie, a striking redhead who oozes reserved sensuality, hiding her brutal upbringing with fine cars and clothes, but knows how to hurt and even kill with indifferent calculation.

The old guard–despite the old crime boss Johnny Stagg now in prison–is still quite virulent, though keeping in the shadows. And, in a foreshadowing of Colson books to come, it seems intent on regaining full power, with the help of the Southern mafia from the Coast.

All in all, The Fallen is a worthy contender in the series and the type of fast-paced mystery Atkin’s readers have come to expect.

There is one jarring issue that stands out in this book, a plethora of foul language. In previous novels, there was plenty of cussing, and, it’s perhaps to be expected among some of the characters, including military types and hardcore criminals. That’s easily shrugged off. But The Fallen abounds in profanity, even from children.

Atkins, a master craftsman with 21 novels, including the deftly written Spenser books, seems to have fallen into a trap of substituting cursing for dialogue. And there’s no difference in the spewing of it by the various characters, as if all were merely one person speaking out of several mouths. It flattens their texture, destroys any nuance, robs them of their individuality, and (the ultimate sin of the writer) distracts from the narrative.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Classic crime stylings in ‘Magpie Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz

magpie murdersLet me start by saying that I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie; I’m super pumped for the Murder on the Orient Express movie coming out later this year. So when I saw that Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz was described as similar to Christie’s books, I immediately grabbed it to read.

Magpie Murders is actually two books in one. The framing story is about Susan Ryeland, a publishing editor, trying to solve the murder of Alan Conway, a bestselling mystery writer. Conway’s books are reminiscent of Christie, with a Poirot-esque detective, English countrysides, and intricate webs of suspects, clues, and motives. The book within the book is the actual Magpie Murders story, Conway’s latest novel starring his detective Atticus Pünd.

When Conway is found dead of an apparent suicide, his editor, Susan Ryeland, can’t help but feel like something is fishy. She starts poking her nose around and ends up going to Conway’s hometown to talk to the cast of characters in Conway’s life. Ryeland knows that what she’s doing is a bit crazy and goes through a thought process of how everyday people don’t just turn into sleuths like they do in the books she edits. That doesn’t stop her, however, from playing Nancy Drew to try to prove that Conway was actually murdered.

While visiting Conway’s hometown, Ryeland sees just how much inspiration the author drew from his real life. Several of the characters in his books are based off the actual people that surrounded him. There are direct references to his town and his house in the books.

Horowitz has done a fantastic job of recreating Christie’s voice in the Alan Conway novel. It doesn’t feel like a carbon copy, but the way Pünd interacts with suspects and is able to detect barely noticeable clues is instead an homage to Hercule Poirot. Horowitz himself has written for the popular Poirot television show (which is one of my all time favorites). He’s also written for Midsomer Murders and created the show Foyle’s War, both of which are great detective shows (All three of these can be found on Netflix).

I really enjoyed the format this was written in, with the fictional novel opening the whole book. I found myself hooked, trying to figure out the complicated clues and untangling the web of motives and suspects. If you like a good a whodunit, then you’ll love Magpie Murders.

Author Q & A with John Grisham

Interview with John Grisham by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (June 18).

John Grisham’s story that took him from small-town lawyer to master of the legal thriller is a tale that even he couldn’t have imagined.

But the incredible success he’s experienced since his first novel was published in 1988–which would lead to 30 bestsellers and counting–is strictly nonfiction.

With the release of his latest work, Camino Island (Doubleday), Grisham takes a recess from the courtroom and goes beachside in what he is calling “a great beach read.”

He’s also hitting the road for the first time in 15 years with a book tour that will bring him to a dozen cities nationwide, including Square Books in Oxford and Lemuria Books in Jackson.

caminoCamino Island is a book about books, booksellers, bookstores, and the rare book business. In this fictional account of the dramatic heist of four original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton University library, most of the story unfolds in the quiet resort town of Santa Rosa, Florida. Main characters Bruce Cable, who owns a popular book store there and Mercer Mann, a hopeful young author, square off in a high-stakes tale of espionage, betrayal, and theft–all within the mysterious world of the rare books trade.

When Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was released 29 years ago, and, in his words, “was a flop,” he decided to give it one more try before abandoning his dram of becoming a writer. With the blockbuster success of The Firm in 1991, he’s never looked back, releasing a book a year ever since.

JohnGrisham_credit Billy HuntBorn in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1955, Grisham spent most of his childhood in Mississippi, and went on to earn an accounting degree from Mississippi State, and then a law degree from Ole Miss. He was working as an attorney in Southaven and serving as a member of the Mississippi Legislature when he began writing full-time.

All of his books have became international bestsellers, and he now has more than 300 million in print worldwide. Nine of those, including A Time to KillThe FirmThe Pelican Brief, and A Painted House have become successful films. His writings also include the nonfiction work The Innocent Man and a collection of short stories, Ford County. He has also written a series for young readers that features 13-year-old character Theodore Boone offering legal advice to his classmates.

When he’s able to take a break from his writing desk, Grisham enjoys devoting time to charitable work (including his Rebuild the Coast Fund after Hurricane Katrina); and his lifetime passion of baseball, as both a local Little League commissioner and the developer of six Little League ball fields on his property.

Why did you decide to do another multi-city book tour after 25 years–and why did you wait that long?

grish lemuriaThe last big book tour I did was in 1992, when The Pelican Brief came out. I was living in Oxford at the time, and I knew Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown. They were always hanging around the bookstore (Square Books), and they talked me into doing a big book tour that turned out to be 35 cities in 34 days. It was not fun and I didn’t think it was productive. I told my publisher I can go back to Oxford and write books or hit the road and do publicity.

So, I never did a tour like that again, but I did continue to have signings at five stores: Square Books, Lemuria, Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo, a store in Memphis and one in Blytheville, Arkansas for about 10 years. those five were really helpful when A Time to Kill came out, and they really supported me. So, it’s been 15 years since I’ve done this, and this time it will be 12 cities.

How has your writing changed since A Time to Kill came out in 1989?How have you changed?

There have been no deliberate changes in my writing, as far as the style, procedure, and process. I write every morning for a few hours, and I write a certain number of words each day. As far as how I’ve changed–I’ve aged 30 years.

Camino Island is the story of a grand-scale heist that leaves the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four novels missing–and it weaves a fascinating behind-the-scenes tale of the world of rare books. Why did you choose the works of Fitzgerald as the target for this crime?

The fact that Fitzgerald had fewer manuscripts–he had published four novels–was a huge factor. And I’ve always been a big follower of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. They were all born about the same time (late 1800s-early 1900s) and were the greatest writers of that generation. Fitzgerald had the fewest manuscripts, and they were all in one place, the library at Princeton. Faulkner had at least 40. He was very meticulous about his manuscripts and took care of them, and that would be a lot to try to steal at one time.

Do you collect rare books?

I’ve been collecting rare books for probably 25 years–a lot of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. There have been several dealers I’ve known and worked with through the years. My wife actually bought a copy of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury from (Jackson’s Lemuria Books owner) John Evans for me.

Tell me aobut your relationship with bookstores and booksellers–have bookstores been a special place for you?

They still are special to me. When I’m traveling I usually try to sneak into a bookstore and see what all is for sale, see if my books are selling. If they have a coffee shop or cafe, that’s a nice touch. I go to bookstores and talking with booksellers is something I always enjoy doing. Bookstores are dwindling in numbers now, and many are fighting to preserve them.

What was the hardest book for you to write, for whatever reason? What was the easiest?

Easy, and fun to write and without much research–would be Calico Joe. I love baseball and really enjoyed writing that one. Camino Island was fun–the world of the murky and mysterious world of rare books and how much they’re worth now. The Chamber was probably the toughest to write. I spent a lot of time on death row in Mississippi doing research.

Is there a topic, a style, a genre, you haven’t tackled yet, but want to?

There are a couple of books based on things I might like to write about. One is a sort of fictional memoir of my childhood and life, like in (my novel) A Painted House. It would be going on in Memphis about a 15-year-old boy who thought he was going to Vietnam, after seeing his friend come home in a box. That’s something I think about–kind of personal stuff. Who knows, I still might write it.

You have another book coming out in October, another legal thriller, this one about student debt–a very topical subject now. What can you tell me about it?

Not much–I have a rule not to talk about a book while I’m writing it. It’s about law students. It’s still untitled.

Your first book was rejected by many publishers. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

It was turned down by about 15 publishers and 15 agents. That’s not unusual for a first-time author. And what I know now that I didn’t know then: everything. I knew nothing then about writing or getting published. I was a state legislator and a small-town lawyer, barely 30 and so naïve.

Oxford’s Square Books owner Richard Howorth told me you were very persistent in getting your first book published–and that you wanted to sell “lots and lots” of books. Considering that you have a degree in accounting from Mississippi State, does that kind of determination come from your accounting side, or would you say it was strictly ambition?

I think it was ambition. I had practiced law 10 years in Southaven. I was looking fo a way out because I knew I wasn’t going to make a lot of money. After 10 years of working hard, I wrote A Time to Killin 1989 and it was a flop. I said I will do this–I will write a book–one more time and see what happens. I wrote The Firm, a book that I thought would be more commercial. The fact that movie rights for that book were sold before it was published was a fluke deal that could never be repeated–it was a lucky break that would only happen once.

Long-term, what do you see in your future?

I’m 62 years old. I’m still enjoying this immensely. I certainly have no plans for a career change, or for slowing down. I intend to write one book, maybe two, a year.

First Voyage with a John Grisham Book

I’m going to be real honest here: I’ve never read a John Grisham book and I had never really thought that I would. But when I found out that Camino Island, his newest book–released today–deals with a bookstore and stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, I became interested and wanted to get my hands on an advance copy.

Camino Island begins with an intense moment, right in the middle of a gang of thieves staging the heist of the F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton library. In what I can only assume is Grisham’s typical thriller writing style, he is able to pull the reader in right away with this scene.

Bruce Cable, owner of an independent bookstore on Florida’s Camino Island, always has his hand in buying and selling rare first edition books in addition to his ordinary stock. Here’s where the true book nerds get hooked. There’s constant book talk, authors and book titles are dropped here and there throughout, and I’m pretty sure Bruce’s first edition rooms may or may not have come from our very own Lemuria. Grisham paints a pretty picture of Bruce Cables’ bookstore, Bay Books. As a book lover, it’s very fun to read about.

Mercer Mann, a writer who has recently been laid off from her teaching gig at UNC and hasn’t written in months, spent her summers on Camino Island with her beloved grandmother Tessa, but hasn’t returned in years since her death. Mercer is approached by a woman who is working for a very mysterious company and is offered a large sum of money to move back to Camino Island and work undercover. Mercer’s mission consists of infiltrating Bruce Cable’s inner workings of his bookstore and first editions deals, as well as working her way into his circle of literary friends. Mercer has to get close enough to make sure Bruce hasn’t started to dip into the black market of stolen books, while also keeping his trust. Things begin to get pretty intense, but Grisham wraps everything up in perfect style.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This is not a legal thriller; it’s more of a crime novel. I think that new Grisham readers will find this book very entertaining and I think die-hard John Grisham fans will find this book refreshing. This book is going to give every book lover a new, and maybe first, look into the bookstore world. As a bookseller, I can definitely say that Grisham did a great job building this world in his writing and as a first time Grisham reader, I can definitely say he writes an entertaining and gripping novel.

If you’re going on vacation this summer, this is the beach read for you!

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Submerged Secrets: ‘Into the Water’ by Paula Hawkins

In a small, English town runs a river with a dark past.

into the waterWhen Nel Abbott jumps to her death in the river, she leaves behind her teenage daughter. Nel’s sister, Jules, comes to take care of her, returning to a town she was desperate to run away from. But this isn’t the first person to turn up dead in the water. The river has claimed the lives of several women over the years, and most recently, a teenage girl. However, not everyone is mourning the death of Nel, who was writing a book about the river’s past and dredging up memories the town would rather put to rest. Was someone desperate enough to keep secrets hidden…that they pushed her? Or is there something more sinister in the water that draws these women in?

Told from multiple perspectives, Into the Water by Paula Hawkins, is a page-turning mystery where just about everyone has a motive. Hawkins has a talent for crafting a quietly eerie tale that keeps you wanting more. I really enjoyed her breakout book, The Girl on the Train, as well as the movie, so I knew I had to pick up her newest one. And honestly, I think this one is even better than her first.

Hawkins does an excellent job creating complex and believable narrators that fuel the story. It wasn’t hard to picture the people of this strange town and to understand their pain and motivations. Hawkins handled switching perspectives really well, giving each character a unique voice and insight that actually added to the plot, instead of confusing the reader. I’m not always a fan of multiple narrators, but I liked how Hawkins did it in this book.

I particularly liked reading from the perspective of the victim’s sister, Jules Abbot. Her flashbacks of growing up in the shadow of her perfect sister really pulled me in. It was interesting how Hawkins played with the idea of memory and that how we remember the past can be more significant than what actually happened.

Water-Ripple-3If the characters don’t draw you in, the setting certainly does. The small town trying to ignore its own tragic past (which involves drowning accused witches) sets a creepy tone for the story. I liked how Hawkins includes excerpts from Nel Abbott’s unpublished book about the girls who died in the river. It really added to the idea of the river being a character in the story and kept me wondering what was behind these suicides.

Like her first novel, Hawkins’ writing is deeply engaging. While it’s not extremely fast-paced, the story definitely keeps moving. Much like the river that this book centers around, things appear calm on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath. Into the Wateris a quiet, yet deeply-satisfying book.

I would recommend this book for anyone who liked Girl on the Train, but also, for anyone looking for a well-written English mystery.

Secrets and Lies in ‘Behind Her Eyes’ by Sarah Pinborough

Continuing on with the British mystery trend, I would like to talk about Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes.

jaw dropLet me just start by saying you that will never guess how this book ends. Try as you might, this book is going to throw you for a serious loop. I finished this book on my lunch break one day and came back in the store and yelled “WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO ME?!!!” There is even a hashtag for this book, #WTFtheending. Don’t let this make you think that the ending was not good; it just shocked the hell out of me.

So onto the story: Louise, a single mom and a secretary, lives in London. Louise divorced her husband several years ago after he had an affair. Her days are taken up with work and her son. behind her eyesOn a rare night out, she meets a man in a bar and they kiss. She is totally giddy about it because she feels there is a real connection and this has not happened to her in years. The next time she is at work, she meets her new boss who is incredibly handsome–and just happens to be the man from the bar. He also happens to be VERY married. Not only that but his wife is INCREDIBLY gorgeous. The new boss, David, and Louise talk about what happened and move forward. No big deal, right?

Then one day, Louise is walking back from dropping her son off at school and plows into a woman and knocks her down. It is Adele, David’s wife. Well, for whatever reason, Louise does not say she works for her husband. They grab a coffee and have a great time talking. They exchange numbers and start to become very chummy. While Adele and Louise’s friendship grows, David cannot seem to keep his eyes off of Louise. Well, of course this escalates and Louise is suddenly in secret relationships with both husband and wife. The more Louise gets drawn into Adele and David’s life, you become aware that something is very strange about this couple. They seem to be so perfect, but obviously something is rotten in Denmark. David cheats on his gorgeous wife, making the David that Adele describes in no way line up with the David Louise has come to know. So, who is lying?

This book had me guessing until the very end. If you love psychological thrillers, then you need to stop what you are doing and read this.

The Hunt Will Go On: ‘Celine’ by Peter Heller

What is it we were always told…? Don’t judge a book by it’s cover…? Well, with Celine by Peter Heller (author of The Painter and The Dog Stars), I did judge it. Lemuria got a poster for this book a few weeks before we got the actual book, and I fell in love with it. I immediately looked it up online to see what it was going to be about. It’s about a lady detective that brings broken families back together. I knew right then and there that this book and I were going to have a great relationship.

Celine is about so much more than a lady detective. The titular character is an effortlessly glamorous woman in her 60s who lives in Brooklyn with her second husband Pete. (I’m a little in love with Pete, if I’m being completely honest.) She is whip smart and knows exactly what to say and when to say it. However, Celine is not your average Jessica Fletcher or Miss Marple.bang! Celine specializes in bringing families back together, for example, finding parents that had to give their children up for adoption. She has no interest in looking for cheating spouses or catching white collar criminals. Is it weird to say that I want to be like Celine when I grow up? Not that I want to be a private detective (just kidding, I totally do), but I want to be as calm and collected as she is. Her husband, Pete, is a man of few words and just as smart as Celine. He often accompanies Celine on her cases, and offers great insight on them.

The story opens up to the story of Gabriela, who is five years old. She and her family are playing in the waves of Big Sur when tragedy strikes. Fast forward about 40 years later, and Gabriela contacts Celine to help her find out once and for all what has happened to her father. Celine is captivated by Gabriela’s story and agrees to help. The case takes Celine and Pete to Yellowstone Park, where they quickly find out that not everyone wants closure for what happened to Gabriela’s father. Throughout the book, episodic stories from Celine’s past offer up explanations of why she is the way she is. Her own background was incredibly glamorous, if not a little broken itself.

This is my first experience reading Peter Heller’s work, and I can say that I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of his books. Heller’s way with words draws me in with the poetry that’s spun through every sentence. When reading about Celine’s past, I feel nostalgic about a life that’s not even my own.

If you’re in Lemuria, come find me and I’ll wax poetic about why I love Celine!

The Penance of Penn Cage: ‘Mississippi Blood’ by Greg Iles

Greg Iles is set to publish his final chapter in the Natchez Burning trilogy tomorrow. The trilogy, which began with Natchez Burning in 2014 and continued with The Bone Tree in 2015, will conclude with Mississippi Blood. The whole trilogy is set in the Natchez, Mississippi, of long-running Iles protagonist Penn Cage, who first appeared in The Quiet Game in 1999. (The trilogy also features appearances from characters in the previously stand-alone and unrelated thriller Dead Sleep from 2001).

I personally first encountered the character of Penn Cage about four years ago on the pages of his second novel, Turning Angel. Penn became the latest in my personal parade of literary types that I treasure: the non-professional private eye. He followed Lawrence Block’s book-loving burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, John D. MacDonald’s legendary beach-bum Travis McGee, and Rick Riordan’s now-forgotten tequila-drinking, tai chi-practicing English professor Tres Navarre.  But Penn hit closer to home, quite literally. At the time, I was working just over the Mississippi River and a little north of Natchez, in Tensas (pronounced Ten-SAW) Parish in Louisiana.

And that’s the thing about these characters: they inevitably become inseparable from their settings. Penn lives and breathes Natchez like its sins and successes are wholly his burden to bear. natchez & riverIt the middle of Turning Angel, he makes a pitch for his out-of-town fiancée to stay while he makes a run for mayor of Natchez: “Natchez has become a place where we have to raise our children to live elsewhere. Our kids can’t come back here and make a living. And that’s a tragedy…I want to change that.” And those words resonate because what’s true for Natchez is essentially true for all of Mississippi.

And this is what has always been at stake for Penn. Since moving home from Houston after the death of his wife, Penn has striven to make a idyllic home life for his daughter Annie, much like the one that his father, Dr. Thomas Cage, had given to him when he was a boy. For the first three books of the series (The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, The Devil’s Punchbowl), Dr. Cage is made out to be a veritable saint, completely devoid of the prejudice that plagues the Natchez community all around him, giving freely his time, medical expertise, and perhaps most importantly, his respect to the surrounding black community.

The façade starts to crumble at the beginning of the first book of this trilogy, Natchez Burning. Dr. Cage is charged with the recent murder of his trusted black nurse from the 1960s, Viola Turner. Her death quickly becomes enmeshed with the murderous activities of a white supremacist terror cell, the Double Eagles, and their drug-running descendants. (The real-life inspiration for the Double Eagles, known as the Silver Dollar Group, is chronicled brilliantly in Stanley Nelson’s harrowing true-life book Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi in the 1960s).

In telling Viola’s story (and Dr. Cage’s, and Natchez’s), Natchez Burning (and its sequel The Bone Tree) go to some wild places, such as post-Katrina reconstruction in New Orleans and the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, of all things. sheriff-cooley-oTruly menacing villains such as Brody Royal, the money man behind the Klan, and Forrest Knox, the heir apparent to all law enforcement in Louisiana and simultaneously the head of the family crime syndicate, dominate the first two books, but are dispatched. By the telling of Mississippi Blood, only Snake Knox (Forrest’s uncle), the man with the meanest of goals—survival and notoriety—and the meanest of dispositions, survives to torment Penn and the good people left standing in Natchez.

Mississippi Blood moves at a slightly less frenetic pace than its predecessors (it would almost have to), but it simmers with the same tension. We—and the courtroom spectators of Natchez—are finally promised answers about Dr. Cage’s activities that have been lingering for years. Also lurking at the edges of Penn’s conscience and consciousness at all times is his half-brother Lincoln Turner, the illegitimate son of Dr. Thomas Cage and Viola Turner. Lincoln may be Penn’s antagonist, but he’s not exactly a villain, even from Penn’s point-of-view. Lincoln is seeking reparation for the disparity of his and Penn’s life in a way that Penn finds almost impossible to pay. Penn has even turned ambivalent about his father’s liberty, blaming him for a tragedy at the end of The Bone Tree, which was truly shocking and heart-rending in a way that is only possible for readers like me after hundreds of pages and dozens of hours spent with the same people.

But, above all, Penn is trying to hold down a peace for family, facing down a dark past before even thinking about a brighter future, determined to see it all the way down to the end. Because while the “Mississippi Blood” of the title may be evocative of all the violence that has taken place in the trilogy, it ultimately refers to the survival instinct of those who possess it running through their veins.

Greg Iles will be at Lemuria on Tuesday, March 21. He will begin signing books at 3:00 and read from Mississippi Blood at 5:30.

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