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The Devil’s Punchbowl

Reviewed: May 31, 2011
By: Greg Iles
Publisher: Pocket Star Books
710 pages, $12.99

Greg Iles returns us to the story of Penn Cage some two years after the events of Turning Angel, a book with such an interesting set of plot threads that I had completely forgotten that Penn intended to run for mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, the home town to which he had returned several years earlier after a successful career as a state prosecutor and a more lucrative one as a novelist.

It was the death of his wife that sent him home with young daughter and a sense of duty that kept him there, duty strong enough to cost him his relationship with newspaperwoman Caitlin Masters. They hooked up in The Quiet Game, but had separated by the time of the events in Turning Angel.

These are the three books in which Cage has been the narrator and central character, though he has appeared in a minor capacity in a couple of other books, and his father. Dr. Tom played a key role in Blood Memory. Iles lives in Natchez, though we assume the city in the books is not exactly the same as the real one. We would hope not, at least.

Two years into his term as mayor, Cage is discouraged and ready to withdraw from politics. Natchez suffers from industrial decline and a socioeconomic rift that is partly based on race and partly on wealth or lack of it. Partly because of his daughter, Annie, Cage is particularly concerned about the decline in educational standards, not only in the public school system, but also even in the private school, which gave him such a good grounding as a boy.

His sole accomplishment in terms of economic renewal has been to lure a new floating casino, the Magnolia Queen, to the city. It’s been a financial boon, but it’s not exactly the sort of revival he had had in mind. As the story opens he is pitching the city as the place to open a massive new statewide recycling center, an opportunity that has perhaps come to Natchez as a result of the damage Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.

First, however, however, there is a midnight meeting in a graveyard with Tim Jessup, a one-time best friend whose life since their school days has been as unsuccessful as Cage’s has been successful, despite their coming from very similar backgrounds.

Jessup has ended up dealing cards on the Magnolia Queen. After an adult life spent battling addictions, in part the legacy of a youthful drunken joyride in which a young woman was killed, Jessup has found religion and a mission, and he has evidence that something nasty and illegal is going on aboard the casino barge.

He has blurry photos of dog fighting matches and underage prostitution to show Cage, and a promise that he can deliver more hard evidence that the Queen is, in fact, ripping off the city financially. While some of the activity isn’t taking place on the boat, it is being organized from there.

In short order Jessup is dead and Cage finds himself on the receiving end of some most unwelcome attention from the manager, Jonathan Sands, and his henchman, Quinn, who turn out to be extremely nasty pieces of work. With his family under threat and his own life at peril, Cage calls in favours from Daniel Kelly, mercenary for hire with the Blackhawk security firm. After that, things get progressively messy as Cage, Kelly and a retired Texas Ranger named Walt Garrity attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding the Magnolia Queen.

Most of the story is told by Penn Cage, but there are chapters from several other points of view. Linda Church, the woman with whom Jessup was having an affair, plays a big role in the story. Caitlin Masters, who returns to Natchez, is a major character.

There are several points in the book at which the crisis seems to have passed, only to have it escalate at a higher level a few pages farther on.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is a thriller rater than a mystery, since it is always obvious who the ungodly are and fairly clear what they are doing. Mixed in with the action are a bit of city politics, some family dynamics and a romantic subplot. Iles tells a good story and the present tense narrative does heighten the tension.

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