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.