BOOK REVIEW: Greg Iles is back with another small-town Mississippi murder mystery

'Cemetery Road' by Greg Iles, William Morrow, 2019, 587 pages, $28.99

“Cemetery Road” is the new book from Greg Iles, author of the Natchez Burning Trilogy. That trilogy brought to a close the exploits of Mississippi lawyer Penn Cage (who first appeared in “The Devil’s Punchbowl”) and his efforts to put to rest the Double Eagles, a clandestine offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan with attachments to organized crime. The Eagles, Penn discovered, were probably major participants in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Presently a stand-alone novel, “Cemetery Road” retains the same general setting, basic plot and character types of its predecessors. For many of Iles’ fanbase, that will probably come as welcome news.

“Natchez Burning”appeared in 2014 and proved to be a tough, brutal book, just short of sensationalist on occasion, yet at the same time a well-intentioned, furious look at the legacy of Southern racism.

“The Bone Tree”was published the following year and is as tough and violent as “Natchez Burning.”Itprofessed to be as broadminded and incendiary as its predecessor, but often it was just plain lurid.

“Mississippi Blood” closed out the Natchez Burning Trilogy in 2017. This final volume seemed to be a bit of each of its forerunners. The ghost of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” also haunts the book. It wasn’t the most comfortable bit of literary tailoring.

“Cemetery Road” opens with the return of Pulitzer Prize-winning news reporter Marshall McEwan to Bienville, Miss., his dying father, and the demise of their 150-year-old newspaper. The entire McEwan family has been touched by a series of deaths that have haunted them for decades.

The first marriage of Marshall’s father ended with the deaths of his wife and child in a suspicious car accident. Marshall witnessed the drowning death of Adam, his older brother, while they were swimming across the Mississippi River when they were both teenagers. Marshall’s own 2-year-old son died in a swimming pool accident, and afterwards Marshall’s marriage ended.

Now, as a billion-dollar Chinese paper mill is set to rescue Bienville’s plummeting economy, Buck Ferris, Marshall’s surrogate father, is killed, trying to preserve the past and to save the town from itself.

As in the Natchez Burning Trilogy, there are eccentric supporting characters. Instead of the Double Eagles, there are the 12 men of privilege who are members of the Bienville Poker Club, men who have a major stake in the continued economic growth of their town. Chief among them is Max Matheson, whose former military training continues to serve him well.

Max’s son Paul grew up with Marshall and saved Marshall’s life in the Middle East. Paul has married lawyer Jet Talal, the beautiful former girlfriend of Marshall. Jet has recently investigated possible graft surrounding the paper mill deal.

Nadine Sullivan, a lawyer herself, also owns the Constant Reader, a bookstore that Marshall retreats to for coffee and sympathy.

Instead of a Natchez Burning Trilogy plot centered in a John Grisham-esque courtroom, “Cemetery Road” is involved with the crisis of dying print newspapers.

There are still questions of civil responsibility to be dealt with — even the Double Eagles from the Trilogy get a mention. There’s still vestigial guilt about the past, both cultural and personal. There’s still attention given to the difficult relationships between, particularly, fathers and sons.

And there’s also — sometimes straining credibility — New Jersey syndicates and Chinese intelligence services and the selling of U.S. Senate seats. There’s waterboarding and more than enough music and movie references. There is also enough specific mention of Marshall’s Ford Flex SUV to make an argument against inexplicable product placement.

Not that Greg Iles’ new novel isn’t going to be a treat for his fans. It’s a long, moody beach read of a murder mystery/melodrama. By its end, readers who embrace this first Marshall McEwan book will be wondering if it is perhaps the beginning of a Cemetery Road Trilogy.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.

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