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
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