WE ARE MARKET BASKET by Daniel Korschun and Grant Welker

(Associates at Market Basket demonstrate their support for their CEO Arthur T. Demoulas)

For me the Market Basket story of the summer of 2014 is somewhat personal.  I had the pleasure of teaching two of Arthur T. Demoulas children and had numerous interactions with the family.  They treated my family as if we were part of theirs and their generosity and support when needed was always present.  The concept of “family” is also the core of how the Market Basket supermarket chain has always been operated.  This concept forms the basis of Daniel Korschun and Grant Welker’s new book WE ARE MARKET BASKET which relates the story of the amazing relationship between management and labor, describing the behind the scenes events and analysis that accompanied the firing of Arthur T. Demoulas (Arthur T.) as company CEO in 2014, bringing to a head an ongoing family dispute that had existed for years.  The dispute has become a case study for many business classes as in this instance labor supported management in the person of Arthur T., when his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas (Arthur S.) sought to destroy the company’s successful business model by squeezing every last dime out of Market Basket to the detriment of the loyal workers and customers of the chain.

The ongoing battle for the leading supermarket chain in New England was between two different corporate views.  The first was followed by Arthur T. who continued the principles laid down by his father Telemachus and his uncle George, the sons of the chain’s founder in creating a sense of family and empowerment among the company’s labor force.  Treating workers as associates with generous profit sharing and other benefits, and keeping prices down for middle and lower consumers whereby helping balance the socioeconomic divide in a given community.  For Arthur S., George’s son, the goal was quite different.  After an earlier court decision, Arthur S. and his faction controlled 50.5% of the company’s stock and a majority of its corporate board.  They sought to implement a plan to shift as much of the company’s liquidity to shareholders as possible, this involved an immediate and continuous dividend of all excess cash, beginning with a $300 million payout in the fall of 2013.  Further, it appeared that Arthur S. and his cohorts were going to sell the company to Delhaize Group, that a few years earlier had also purchased Hannafords.  To achieve this goal, Arthur T. had to be fired as company CEO.  In a nutshell that is the background that Daniel Korschun, a marketing professor at Drexel University; and Grant Welker, a journalist with the Lowell News present in their new book.  However, the detail presented goes much deeper and upon completion what emerges is the family background to the business dating from its founding by Greek immigrants in 1917, a detailed discussion of the company’s philosophy and business model, and the nasty corporate war that raged inside the family until Arthur T. was finally restored as company CEO in August, 2014.

Market Basket is a $4.5 billion corporation that retains the mom and pop feel that its founder, Athanasios Demoulas and his sons Telemachus and George cultivated from the outset.  The authors detail the course of the company’s evolution as it caught the American supermarket phase of the 1950s to create the success that it has become.  Once its founder died, the two son’s success was built on their ability to serve families on fixed and limited incomes as the textile mills closed down in Lowell, MA where the first store was opened.  They kept their prices low which in effect raised their customer’s standard of living.  Further, the Demoulas brothers were open to local producers and did not charge the high slotting fees that other chains did.  They relied on offering high quality products, fully staffed and stocked their stores on a level not matched by their competitors, and treated their employees well so they would have a vested interest in the company’s success.

The authors acknowledge that Arthur T. possessed personal attributes that were almost “cult” like during the ensuing strike following his dismissal as CEO, but they argue there is much more to this complex man than is often presented in the media.  He is a perfectionist who demands excellence and an extremely tough negotiator.  He believes in having almost complete control in implementing his vision, but he is an astute individual who has a good “heart” and has developed a strong and loyal management team that has been with him for years.  He believes workers, known as associates have to learn the business from the ground up and promoting from within, not hiring the latest MBA.  Like his father, Arthur T. “overarching goal is to grow the company, and his personal goal is to be a good merchant,” which is in marked contrast to his cousin, Arthur S.   For Arthur T., “Market Basket has a moral obligation to the communities we serve,” which explains the amazing support he received from customers during the 2014 strike and how they returned as shoppers once he was able to buy out the opposition and return as CEO.

The authors stress the culture that has evolved at Market Basket over the years-loyalty, family, and community.  The sense of family transcends traditional boundaries as is described in detail throughout the narrative.  The culture of the company rests on empowerment as “associates believe that their job is important and that they as individuals have roles in the success of the company.”  The authors devote a significant amount of time to explaining leadership and business practice theory and apply different academic philosophies to Market Basket.  But, it seems in all cases no matter which study or market research that is consulted, the company either stands out as one of the best, or it has adapted and never wavered from its core values, i.e.; empowerment, communication, and distributed leadership strategies.  Market Basket executives consistently break with the accepted wisdom put forth in business schools and focus on weekly shoppers who buy for their families, as opposed to the newer trends of the mega store like Wegmans or the occasional shopper like Trader Joe’s.

By 2013 following the death of George, the family conflict over the company’s philosophy could no longer be contained once his widow and son shifted their support to Arthur S.  The authors had access to Market Basket board meetings as part of their research that provides a unique view into corporate conflict.  The strategy of Arthur S. and his board allies to remove his cousin are laid out, in addition to the birth of the movement that would support Arthur T.  Once the firing took place fear spread among associates that there company was about to be sold and felt that their lives that were totally integrated into the Market Basket family were about to be destroyed.  A detailed chronological description of events from the perspective of the opposition to Arthur S. and his board actions is presented, as is a perceptive analysis of the strategic errors they made.

(Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas)

To gain the feel of what the firing meant to Market Basket associates the authors included numerous interviews in the text, and the relationship between Arthur T. and his employees is clearly one of deep emotion and support.  The authors spend a major part of the book analyzing the strike that was implemented to save Arthur T. and their vision of their jobs from the warehouse and supply stoppages, the use of social media to gain outside support, as well as the economic and political ramifications that probably would have taken place had Arthur T. not been able to purchase control of the company.  The narrative and dialogue presented is often breezy, but in a very serious manner because of what was at stake.  It is a fine effort by the authors and fully explains why so many people were “honking their horns” throughout the summer of 2014 as they drove by their local Market Basket store.

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VENDETTA: BOBBY KENNEDY VERSUS JIMMY HOFFA by James Neff

(Robert F. Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa, 1957)

The title VENDETTA of James Neff’s new book that deals with Robert F. Kennedy’s quest to bring Jimmy Hoffa to justice is chilling from the perspective of how unions, organized crime, and businesses colluded to defraud union members, the government, and the general public.  Neff begins his story with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 that provoked a reaction from his brother Bobby, “there’s so much bitterness, and I thought they’d get one of us….I thought it would be me.” (6)  At the time Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General and was in the midst of his Justice Department’s prosecution of Hoffa for witness tampering, real estate, and pension fraud.  This would culminate in Hoffa’s conviction in early 1964 that ended a seven year journey for Robert Kennedy to bring the corrupt Teamster President to justice.  Despite the conviction, Kennedy remained unsettled because he could never be sure that Hoffa, who danced on his desk and shouted with glee when learning of the president’s assassination, was not behind his brother’s death.

Neff, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigations editor at the Seattle Times has written a comprehensive and engrossing history of the relationship between the Kennedy brothers and Jimmy Hoffa.  He explores all the major characters who were involved in that relationship and presents an objective and well written account of a very important aspect of American labor history.  Neff introduces both protagonists with short biographies of each and we learn that Robert Kennedy saw himself as a crusader against what he perceived to be labor injustice, and Jimmy Hoffa, who believed he was a victim of a class war by the rich Kennedy’s as he was convinced that he was unjustly persecuted for seven years until they finally nailed him.  During that time the author leads the reader through RFK’s appointment to the staff of the Senate Sub-Committee on Organized Crime headed by Alabama Senator John L. McClellan.  RFK’s brother was also a member of the committee and wanted to use it as a stepping stone to enhance his presidential credentials.  RFK zeroed in on the influence of organized crime and their infiltration of labor unions, and made Jimmy Hoffa his target as the epitome of what he was trying to prove that would hopefully lead to strong congressional legislation to weaken the criminal hold on American labor.  Neff describes an obsessed Robert Kennedy over a seven year period trying to prosecute Hoffa and put him behind bars.  Their conflict was epic and after a few committee hearings Hoffa was convinced he was being unjustly targeted which was the source of their personal vendetta.

(Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy during the Senate McClellan Committee hearings into organized crimes influence on labor unions)

Neff provides the reader with intricate details employing committee transcripts and analysis as the McClellan hearings evolve.  The reader is present in the Senate chambers and can easily grasp the hatred between the two men.  Neff discusses each character that is mentioned in detail whether it is Edward Bennett Williams, the suave and sophisticated Capitol Hill lawyer who defended Hoffa; Bernard Spindel, a New York veteran from World War II trained in electronics who developed advanced eavesdropping devices for Hoffa; Walter Sheridan, RFK’s alter ego at the Justice Department who led the prosecution of the union leader; to David Beck, the crooked Teamster President who preceded Hoffa.  These are just a few of the important players in the narrative, and Neff is able to weave many more into the story.  As you read on it appears that Neff has left no stone unturned in his research.  He explores legal strategy, mob participation, intimidation tactics, and the stretching of constitutional guarantees by the Justice Department.  Neff takes us into strategy sessions, Hoffa’s labor meetings, and Kennedy’s office as we learn how each component of the overall story will unfold.

Kennedy’s obsession led to the “Hoffa Strike Force” once his brother convinced him to become Attorney General.  It is here that Neff recounts conversations and other details as the hatred between Kennedy and Hoffa comes to a head.  We witness how slippery Hoffa was to prosecute and convict and for seven years Kennedy was almost at a loss as to his failure.  Hoffa was elected Teamster president and his overall influence and popularity among union members could not be broken.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the 1960 Presidential election.  Recounting Hoffa strategy to block John F. Kennedy’s nomination the underside of politics is in full view.  The use of union funds, members, and other assets were fully employed by Hoffa first in the Democratic primaries and then in the general election as the teamsters were deployed in full to bring about the election of Richard Nixon, who in true Nixonian fashion promised Hoffa to protect him from the Justice Department once he was elected.  Another fascinating part of the book is the limited role FBI Director Herbert Hoover played in RFK’s quest.  Hoover was more interested in his own agenda who was not averse to using his own intelligence against the Kennedy’s, particularly their sexual escapades.

(Part of Hoffa’s strategy to get the Justice Department off his back was to use his union truckers to get out the message he was being persecuted by Robert Kennedy)

Perhaps the most important section of the book involves how the Justice Department finally is able to convict Hoffa of jury tampering and pension fraud in 1964.  Using a former Hoffa ally as a plant in return for a plea deal, RFK’s people are able to surprise Hoffa during the first trial for witness tampering and destroy his defense.  Once convicted his next trial for pension fraud was easier to prosecute.  Attempts to appeal failed as the Supreme Court ruled against him and Hoffa would be imprisoned until pardoned by Nixon in 1971.   Hoffa would suffer the same fate as Robert Kennedy as he is murdered in a Detroit suburb in 1975, probably a mob hit, but to this day we are not sure since a body has never been found.

Neff’s skill as a narrative historian allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story and I will admit it was difficult to put down.  The book reads like a crime novel, but in reality it is the sordid history of the Teamsters Union over decades culminating in the reign of Jimmy Hoffa.  The book is an excellent read and numerous interesting and surprising things will emerge in what really can be categorized as a courtroom thriller.

BEHIND THE LINES by Jeffrey B. Miller

The centennial anniversary of World War I produced numerous evaluations of the conflict that brought horrific technology to the battlefield and left Europe totally reconfigured and created the ground work for World War II, and the disintegration of the Middle East today.  Among the many new books that appeared in 2014 most dealt with the economic, political, and diplomatic components that drove Europe to war in August, 1914, its conduct, and its final conclusion.  Few have explored the humanitarian aspects of the war, but this growing genre has produced a number of important works among them is Jeffrey B. Miller’s BEHIND THE LINES, a well-researched and thoughtful narrative designed to acquaint his audience with the Americans who went to Belgium after it was occupied by the Germans and contributed to the effort to save untold millions from starvation.

Miller examines the role of the Commission on Relief in Belgium (CRB) that was established in October, 1914 to import food and ensure its distribution for those in need throughout occupied Belgium.  Before the war Belgium was the most highly industrialized and densely populated country in Europe, with a ratio of 652 people per square mile, while in England it was 374 people per square mile.   It was a country that was dependent upon food imports for its survival and because of its industrialized base was able to export enough products to more than offset the cost of its food imports.  Once the war commenced German wanton acts of destruction and the British naval blockade left Belgium in dire straits.  Among the many individuals that Miller discusses who tried to alleviate the growing threat of starvation was the American mining engineer, Herbert Hoover, a man saddled with the great depression of 1929 as his epitaph.  Miller presents a much different picture of Hoover as he discusses a person driven to alleviate hunger by developing the organizational structure that would feed over nine million people in Belgium during the war.  Hoover’s use of newspapers to pressure allied governments was ingenious as newspapers never seemed to run out of Belgian stories, and Hoover never seemed to run out of stories to supply them!   Hoover would develop the CRB and deploy American college students, then studying at Oxford throughout Belgium to assist in the development of a mechanism to acquire, ship, and distribute foodstuffs where they were needed.  The CRB eventually secured over $1 billion to purchase food and developed a global logistical system to feed millions.  Many of the delegates as they were called risked their lives in the process and Miller’s narrative reflects their historical importance as many thought they were signing up for a six week donation of their time during winter break in December, 1914, but in reality their stint was much longer and impactful than they realized when they left London for Rotterdam.

(Belgian anti-German propaganda in 1914)

The impact of the CRB on the world was profound as Dr. Brandon Little argues in the book’s Forward.  First, it demonstrated that humanitarian countermeasures could be developed in a time of total war.  Second, it awakened hope among the suffering people.  Third, the success of the Americans in delivering aid reinforced the belief by Americans in their own exceptionalism.  Fourth, the CRB became the conceptual seed for the creation of other international humanitarian agencies.  Lastly, the CRB provided a novel approach to an overwhelming wartime problem.

The personal stories of those who made the CRB possible has not been widely circulated, but now after carefully mining the available historical record, including those of his grandparents who were CRB workers, Miller has provided a vivid account of those involved.  What emerges is proof that the United States became deeply involved in World War I long before Congress declared war against Germany in April, 1917.  Miller provides evidence that the US became involved almost at the outset of the fighting and he concentrates on the unsung heroes like E.E. Hunt, an American freelance journalist who witnessed the carnage of the war and joined the CRB and greatly facilitated its work in the city of Antwerp which was bombarded hourly by the Germans before it finally succumbed.  Others that Miller explores in depth include the work of the autocratic Herbert Hoover who believed that to efficiently meet its tasks the CRB needed to be centrally organized and directed.  Miller spends a great deal of time examining the bureaucratic infighting among the French Belgian, and American relief agencies and the different personalities involved as they tried to meet the needs of the Belgian people.  David T. Nelson, an American Rhodes scholar was the first delegate that joined the CRB who walked into Belgium with only the clothes on his back.  Erica Bunge and her banking family are explored in detail as is the work of Eugene van Doren, a Belgian businessman, and Abbe Vincent de Moor, a Catholic priest who published an underground newspaper in Brussels and spied for the British secret service.  Miller integrates the lives of many other participants be it CRB delegates, French businessman who wanted to assist in the process, politicians, military leaders in providing a unique insight into what it took to offset the German occupation and feed millions.

(German soldiers execute Belgian civilians in August, 1914)

Miller provides an excellent description of the plight of civilians during the German bombardment of Antwerp.  He details the disappointment in the lack of British and French aid and the inability of the Belgium military to stem the tide of the German shelling.  Interestingly, once the occupation of Belgium is complete, the British government was split over whether to provide aid to Belgium.  The military opposed it, with men like Winston Churchill, Lord Kitchener, and Secretary of the Exchequer David Lloyd George arguing that it was Germany’s responsibility to feed the people as the occupying power and fearing that any aid would be seized by the German military.  They argued further that “Belgian starvation would create such havoc that the German s would have to pull troops from the western front to maintain order.” (337) Others like Prime Minister Herbert Asquith reluctantly favored aid.  The Germans would argue that it was the British blockade that was responsible for the starvation problem and they were willing to cooperate with the allies if and when aid was provided.  Other interesting aspects of the book included Hoover’s use of publicity in the United States and England to gain support for his efforts as newspapers and other propaganda tools were employed as a constant conduit to the world of the plight of Belgium.  Miller reiterates the problem faced in disbursing relief in that if it was not provided quickly enough the Belgian people might revolt forcing the Germans to crack down even further and worsening an already desperate situation.  Miller contrasts the major cities involved in the relief effort.  He compares life in Antwerp, which was severely damaged by German bombardment, and Brussels, that allowed the Germans to take over peacefully to avoid being destroyed.  Miller also describes life in Rotterdam which was the main transshipment port for aid arriving from England and the United States.  The lives of people in these cities were vastly different and for its people their quality of life was based on decisions made by politicians who had little leeway in making choices.  Lastly, Miller’s brief biographies of the major historical figures and their actions, as well as his thorough descriptions of the work of the American “Rhodes Scholar and non-Rhodes Scholar delegates” to the CRB are insightful and informative and allow the reader to truly understand the conditions under which they worked and the successes they achieved.

The book is well written but does present a challenge at times to the reader.  The edition that I read had pagination issues that for a time made it difficult to read the book.  In addition, at times Miller becomes overly engrossed in the bureaucratic infighting that seems to be a constant issue.  Periodically, the author gets bogged down in his description of the minutiae that each relief committee is engaged in.  Lastly, I would suggest that a more comprehensive citation system be used for those who are interested in the sources that were consulted to assist the reader.  However, these shortcomings do not in any way take away from the work that Miller has done in publicizing the American effort to assist the Belgian people during World War I.  Miller believes that he has only scratched the surface of his subject and plans two more volumes that the reader can look forward to as the author continues his exploration of the humanitarian role as the calender turns to 1915.

(German troops cross the Belgium border in August 1914)

THE CORNERS OF THE GLOBE by Robert Goddard

The second installment of Robert Goddard’s worldwide trilogy, THE CORNERS OF THE GLOBE is a first rate sequel to THE WAYS OF THE WORLD.  The main character James Maxted, better known as “Max” continues his quest to discredit the idea that his father, Sir Henry, a British diplomat attached to the English delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 had committed suicide.  To avoid rehashing the details of the events surrounding the death of Sir Henry, the machinations that ensued involving a number of foreign secret services, and the impact of events on the peace talks, Goddard provides a handy memo written by Henry Appleby, a member of the British Secret Service that summarizes events in his missive to “C,” the individual in charge of English intelligence, dated 27 April 1919 (see pp. 31-36).  The memo allows those readers who have not read THE WAYS OF THE WORLD to gain somewhat of an understanding of why the story line proceeds as it does, though it is a bit confusing at the outset.

The narrative continues as Max arrives crossing over from Scotland and landing at Kirkwall Bay which at the time is overrun by American mine sweepers trying to clear the vast body of water from mines laid during the Great War.  Max, who is now in the service of British intelligence, also posing as an agent of the German spy master, Fritz Lemmer, who he suspects was responsible for the death of his father, is to inspect a German warship that has been interned at Scapa Flow.  Max’s mission is to recover a document, the Grey File, a coded list that details Lemmer’s foreign operatives that are working for German interests in Paris that is held aboard a German ship.  Once the document is located Max is forced to give up his cover story as death seems to follow his path as he races south to London with the documentation that would finally destroy Lemmer.

Goddard weaves a number of sub plots into his narrative that seems to coalesce at various times in the book and points to Goddard’s skill as a master story teller. Max’s mother, Lady Maxted enlists her brother George Clissold to deal with a law suit that was about to be brought against her by a French socialite who had purchased a series of antiquities from her deceased husband. The intricacies associated with the Maxted and Tomura families repeatedly make their appearance.   Next, we find Sam Twentyman, a colleague of Max’s from the war, in charge of the British motor pool in Paris trying to avoid being killed by Lemmer’s men who believe he knows where Max can be found.  The roles of Travis Ierton and Schools Morahan, whose main business was the exchange of illegally obtained information about the peace negotiations and selling it to the highest bidder is ever present.  Horace Appleby and Max’s quest to disclose to “C” the identity of spies within British intelligence, when they themselves have been accused of being spies by members of the secret committee headed by “C” that controls intelligence operations from London is extremely important.  Finally, the reader is exposed to the machinations of the Japanese at the peace conference as they try to acquire the former German colony of Shantung from the Chinese.

The role of the Japanese introduces a number of new characters in the story.  Marquis Saionji, the head of the Japanese delegation faces political problems at home as he is perceived as not being tough enough in presenting Japan’s position in Paris.  His deputy Count Masatake Kuroda is recalled to Tokyo and is replaced by Count Tomura Iwazu, a gangster with interests in Korea and Manchuria, who represents the right wing nationalist faction of the Japanese government.  Count Tomuro, employing his son Nuboro, searches for the mysterious Arab le Singe who he believes is privy to secret Japanese documents and information that could destroy Tomuro’s illegal business empire and political influence.  The result is havoc and death for anyone who gets in their way.  It seems for most of the book that every strand in the story leads to le Singe.  What does he know?  Lemmer and his men, Nuboro and his thugs, British intelligence led by Appleby and Max are all desperate to find him first so they can figure out the proper course to take to protect their personal and governmental interests.  However, as the story continues to unfold, of the utmost importance is that a deadly secret exists that is deeply buried in Japan’s domestic political power struggle.  This secret has already cost the lives of Max’s father, Sir Henry, and a growing list of others who have some knowledge of what it is.

Goddard’s historical nuances are as strong in his second installment as they were in the first volume of the trilogy.  He points to the problems between the Greeks and Turks as they covet certain territory.  The American government’s subterfuge in fomenting a revolution in Columbia in order to obtain a strip of land to push the Panama Canal through.  President Wilson’s battle with the Japanese over self-determination for the Chinese.  The political infighting within the Japanese peace delegation and government in Tokyo, as well as the arrival of the German delegation to receive the final peace treaty are all significant and presented with historical insight and accuracy.

The glue that seems to bind all the characters, whether from THE WAYS OF THE WORLD or newly introduced in THE CORNERS OF THE GLOBE is the Grey File and what it entails, the knowledge that le Singe may possess, and economic and political influence in Japan.  The disingenuous behavior and violence that dominates the story is well suited to the characters that Goddard has developed.  The book continues a mysterious historical yarn, but as in the first book, it ends rather abruptly leaving the reader hanging looking forward to reading the final volume in Goddard’s trilogy, THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.

THE QUIET GAME by Greg Iles

The Quiet Game (Penn Cage Series #1)

Greg Iles is a prolific novelist with many successful books to his credit.  Since the QUIET GAME is my first foray into his world of fiction that holds tremendous historical resonance, I was trying to place him among the novelists I am familiar with.  I have come to the conclusion that tinges of John Grisham and Pat Conroy are present in his work.  Though these similarities may be present, Iles has a sharp pen, loaded with human emotion that easily galvanize the reader.  This approach is present in his first Penn Cage novel, THE QUIET GAME.  Cage a successful Houston lawyer and prosecutor, in addition to being a bestselling author returns to his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi and his parents’ home to try and overcome the grief he and his young daughter Anna are coping with since the passing of his wife and the child’s mother.  Almost immediately he is confronted with his own past, and that of Natchez.

First, in 1968, Del Payton, then employed in the Battery Plant in town was murdered in a parking lot when a bomb exploded as he entered his automobile.  Once a friend of the martyred civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, Payton was a voter registration organizer at the time of his death, making him a threat to the local powers that be.  Second, Penn’s father divulges a family secret that years before his Aunt Ellen had been harassed, raped, and beaten by her ex-boyfriend.  Before learning this, Penn’s father, a doctor in Natchez had loaned a 38 pistol to a former policeman, Ray Pressley.  Later, Penn’s father learns that Pressley had killed his sister’s tormentor with that same gun.  A third strand that Iles weaves into his story is Judge Leo Marston, who years before as District Attorney tried to ruin Dr. Penn’s medical practice with a bogus malpractice prosecution.  Though acquitted, Dr. Penn suffered a heart attack that almost ruined his career.

When Penn returns to Natchez he is approached by Del Payton’s widow to try and obtain justice for her dead husband who was killed thirty years earlier.  Since the FBI and the local police did little to try and uncover who had committed the murder she approached Penn.  After some trepidation, that will turn out to be totally warranted, Penn takes the case and in seeking to uncover the truth he learns that Judge Marston probably bears some responsibility for Payton’s murder and Presley, dying of cancer may have planted the bomb.  Iles integrates all three strands and ties them together in creating an intriguing exploration of 1960s Mississippi politics and its relation to Washington, D.C., in addition to southern society and politics that should be an anathema today. Iles creates a series of characters that fit his story line nicely ranging from newspaper heiress, Caitlin Masters, Judge Leo Marston, who represents the evil of the “good old boy” southern power structure, John Portman, an field agent in the 1960s, who thirty years later finds himself Director of the FBI, Livy Marston Sutter, the judges daughter who had a relationship with Penn in high school, Ike Ransom, a tortured black Vietnam veteran who wound up on the Natchez police force, and Dwight Stone, a former FBI agent who is blackmailed from divulging the truth, and many others. The key question in what motivated Payton’s murder; race, political power, money, or all three.  As the novel unfolds and Penn gathers a great deal of damning evidence and moves closer to the truth murders occur and threats become almost routine.

What separates Iles’ approach from other writers is the complexity and layers that he weaves throughout the plot line.  Penn is confronted with an explosive situation when he discovers that the recently approved head of the FBI, a bipartisan congressional choice because of his supposed liberal civil rights record as an agent in Mississippi in the 1960s was in some way linked to Payton’s murder.  Like the pealing of an onion, Penn develops a strategy to force Marston and others to come forward in an effort to bring about justice.  The lies and cover-ups abound and Penn chips away until he is certain of the correct path he should follow.  In a manner that most investigators and lawyers would not chose, Penn risks everything to learn the truth, and the question that comes to the reader’s mind throughout is how far Iles will go in playing with your emotions as the book becomes difficult to put down.  Iles raises many provocative questions throughout the book.  One of the most interesting is why then FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, sealed the case files of the Payton murder using the excuse that it was for national security reasons.  Another question that emerges is the relationship between the FBI and the racial politics in Mississippi throughout the civil rights period.  To learn the answers to these questions and others you will have to read the first installment in Iles’ Penn Cage series, and the reader is in luck because there are four more installments, the most recent, THE BONE TREE was just published.