Greg Iles. Natchez Burning. New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014.
Greg Iles is a favourite, and this is a EPIC book in more ways than one (800 pages). It's a blockbuster chronicle of endemic civil rights struggles in the deep south Mississippi River country. It's also one of the most intricately plotted mysteries you might ever come across. Or one mystery after another, you could say. Penn Cage ‒ who features in other Iles novels ‒ is the mayor of Natchez; he is forced to investigate when his ailing father, Dr. Tom Cage, faces a murder charge. A swamp full of alligators might be an apt metaphor for what boils to the surface after forty years of secrets. Wayward politicians, powerful businessmen, redneck killers called Double Eagles, stubborn journalists (Penn's fiancée Caitlin is one of them), musicians, Ku Klux Klan, law enforcement ― they're all here.
Family secrets, town secrets, Double Eagles secrets: keeping them buried is worth even more murders. Penn is after the truth from surviving participants and victims of the associated racial violence. Mostly he wants to learn the truth about his uncooperative father and whether he compromised his own family. The story moves forward through dozens of characters and never stops with the surprises, threats, murder, and arson, from the 1960s assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK to the perpetuation of racism in modern fictional families. They all tie together. Truly a masterpiece of both crime fiction and history.
Sonny hadn't seen the Bone Tree since 1966, but he remembered it all too well. The colossal cypress reared up out of the swamp like the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. But this was no paradise. More than a dozen men Sonny knew of had died under that tree, and Frank claimed the real number was over a hundred. He'd shown Sonny hand-forged chain links embedded in the bark that dated back to slave times. Runaway slaves had supposedly been hanged or hobbled beneath this cypress. High inside the hollow trunk, Sonny had seen carvings Frank swore were Indian sign, from before the French came. (35)
"I think she knew she could trust your father to give her a painless death. To her, that was worth the risk of retaliation by the Eagles. It's about as sad as anything I ever heard."
"But she didn't get a painless death," I point out. "And that's how I know my father didn't kill her. We've got to explain all this to Shad, Henry."
Henry's skepticism is plain. "Without proof?"
"We have to get him proof. A statement from your Double Eagle source. Did you tape any of the stuff he said today?"
The reporter shakes his head. "I took good notes."
"Christ, man. You should have taped the bastard on the sly. That may have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance." (251)
The trooper drew his pistol. "Inside the van!" he yelled. "Open the door and come out with your hands out in front of you!"Sonny Thornfield shouted something unintelligible from within.
Tom's throat sealed shut with fear.
"How many of you are in there?" called the trooper.
This time there was no response. Tom's back began to ache between his shoulder blades. He prayed it wasn't heart pain.
"Open that damned door!" the trooper yelled at Tom. "Do it now, then back away!""Hey, take it easy, brother. We got nothing to hide."
The trooper waved his gun at Tom. "You get that goddamn door open." He glared at Walt. "And you stay right where you are!"
It is heart pain, Tom realized, rotating one shoulder to try to relieve the ache. I need a nitro. (497-498)
Olen Steinhauer. The Cairo Affair. New York: Picador/Minotaur Books, 2014.
Anything with the word Cairo in it, I am likely to pick up. At first I was not comfortable with this unfamiliar author until his modus operandi became more clear. It's an espionage novel, in Steinhauer's own words, about "the mess of contemporary international relations." Indeed! At the book's beginning, Sophie sees her American diplomat husband shot before her eyes in Budapest, and she loses no time embarking on a strange few days to seek his killer. The consequences reach into consulates and intelligence agencies of several countries. No-one trusts anyone and everyone is lying.
Mainly set in Egypt in the Arab Spring of 2011, just months before the overthrow and death of Libya's Muammar Ghaddafi, the story unfolds from the perspective of four key figures. Each of their sections overlaps with the preceding so that time and timing often become jumpy or blurred; the style can be disconcerting. The invasion plan underlying and motivating the entire plot is unclear for a long time, and Sophie is rather a cipher until you grasp her inner secrets. Altogether an intriguing look at high-level duplicity and manipulation ... if you can overlook the "off of" appearing on almost every page.
... he showed his anxieties by launching into overstatement and weak metaphor. (181)
He tried to be agreeable for everyone, which, like most things in life, is just a matter of showing up. (215)
Re-living the nightmare:
She had never imagined that it would be like this. Not that she'd ever imagined this, but whenever she'd imagined something terrible happening before her eyes, her imagination would take in the event itself, that first taste of horror, and then ... cut: to the next day, or the next week. Her brain worked like a film editor, even dicing up actual memories, jump-cutting over hours, balking at the grimy minutes and hours that stretched between the initial shock and the final passing out, when a night's sleep would come along to wash away a little of the metallic taste of disaster. (31)
Two intelligence officers:
Eventually, Harry said, "You know, Stan, it may have nothing to do with Cairo. Maybe Emmet made the mistake of sleeping with the wrong Hungarian girl."
"Whose boyfriend just happened to be an international hit man?"
"I've seen worse luck in my time."
"I haven't," said Stan.
"Then you need to get out more." (85-6)
One intelligence officer:
He was influenced by the same misinformation the Agency had done too little to combat, the failed operations and occasional misdeeds that painted the Agency as a monster that needed to be kept caged if the world wanted its sons and daughters to remain safe. To people like Omar Halawi – and, perhaps, Busiri – CIA was part pf a conspiracy to turn the planet into drones friendly to American business. (194-5)