Penn Cage returns in Greg Iles’ novel TURNING ANGEL. Five years have passed since Cage solved a civil rights case that dated back to the 1970s and he has settled into his new life as an author in Natchez, MS. Cage a former prosecutor in Houston is a widower and the father of a young girl. Now a successful author he finds himself a pillar of the community serving on the St. Catherine’s School Board among other official duties. The story begins at a School Board meeting when the school secretary informs the board that one of their students, Kate Townsend has been found dead where St. Catherine’s Creek washes into the Mississippi River. Townsend, a 17 year old senior, valedictorian, and athlete had won a scholarship to Harvard and now is the center of a murder investigation that will rock the Natchez community.
Dr. Andrew Elliot is the leading physician in Natchez with a stellar reputation, and like his friend Cage very involved in the community. After the body is found he asks his friend to be his lawyer. It seems that Elliot, entrapped in a poor marriage was having an affair with Townsend and was being blackmailed as he wanted to keep that information quiet. Further, it was Elliot who had found the body and had intimate relations with Townsend two days before the murder. It turns out that Townsend was pregnant and that her mother knew about the affair and did not disapprove. Penn takes on the case and is up against Shad Johnson, the black District Attorney who is no friend of Cage since he believed that five years earlier he had cost him election as Natchez’s mayor. At this time, the current mayor has resigned and a new election must take place within forty five days. Johnson sees the prosecution of a rich white physician as a way to reassert his bonifides with the black community and assure himself the mayor’s office. From this point on the novel which has already engrossed the reader gathers further steam.
Many of Iles’ characters from his previous Penn Cage novel are major players in TURNING ANGEL, particularly Shad Johnson who has his own personal political agenda and is a thorn in Cage’s side. A number of new ones emerge that are critical to the story. One of which is Quentin Avery, an elderly lawyer who suffers from diabetes. When Cage realizes that he is too close to his friend’s case he hires Avery who agrees to defend Elliot because of his disdain for Johnson and other personal reasons. Employing Avery as his mouthpiece, Iles’ views on black civil rights leaders emerges. He sees a crisis in black leadership and breaks down that leadership into a number of interesting categories. In today’s climate of racial tension with Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, MD, and events in New York, Iles’ comments are important. He points to a managerial type who pretend that race is not an issue. These individuals want a large white constituency, but also want to keep blacks loyal to them. They tend to be pragmatic and want blacks to join mainstream society. Then you have the black protest leader that is loud and proud that want personal status and power, i.e., Louis Farrahkan and Al Sharpton. They tap into an emotional appeal and can be dangerous. The last category he terms the “prophetic leader” who relies on intellect, someone like President Obama. The jury is still out whether any of these types can be successful, however, thus far their success rests on the pervasiveness of mass market culture and the failure of the black middle class. Throughout the novel the plight of the black community in the south is ingrained in the plot and provides insights into all aspects of southern society.
Another theme that pervades the novel is the drug crisis in America’s schools. Iles is a very competent chronicler of events as they relate to the use of heroin, pain killers and ecstasy. By weaving the drug scenario throughout his story he is trying to educate his readers about this crisis and that something must be done to make our schools safe. A lesser theme that Iles explores that emerges in detail toward the novel’s conclusion is that of the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s. Though briefly presented its horror still lives on in Croatia, Serbia and throughout the Balkans. Overall, Iles writes in exquisite detail that allows the reader to feel they are personally witnessing the action in the story. This is my second Penn Cage novel and I look forward to reading the other three. Iles is the type of writer that hooks his reader in the first few pages and does not let them go even after the book is completed.
(Mansion in Natchez, MS)