Sunday, October 30, 2016

“The Bone Tree” by Greg Iles – How Does Your Murder Garden Grow?

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles - book cover
Despite the fact that the country has been in existence for a rather short amount of time, the United States of America already has quite a rich history to it, one unfortunately filled with many tales of violence and oppression. Racial strife is something that has always been present in some parts of the country, and though some may not be aware of it, a whole lot of blood was spilled in the Deep South when the people resisted “integration”. There was also the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event that made headlines around the entire world and gave conspiracy theorists decades upon decades of work to keep themselves busy.

It seems to me that every author has his or her own reason for tackling certain subjects, and whatever Greg Iles' may be, I hope he never loses them as they are driving him to put out some powerful literature, and I'm talking about The Bone Tree, a Penn Cage novel and the fifth in the series. While it would definitely give you some more background information, reading the novels in order isn't necessary at all; they all stand on their own and can be fully enjoyed without any other knowledge.

The first thing anyone will notice about the book is its length: around 800 pages, depending on the format and such. Now, even if you do enjoy longer books, this kind of length is always a bit of a question mark as it gives the author many ways to go wrong; the story can be all over the place, the plot can become fragmented, there could be a lot of filler, the pacing can suffer dramatically, and worst of all, it could easily end up being overstretched and just plain boring. Now, I'm not claiming that this book is completely faultless, but in my opinion Greg Iles is a truly masterful storyteller who manages to avoid every single one of those pitfalls, working the magical charms of a true maestro for a story that flows much faster than you would expect.

Anyhow, what exactly are you going to be reading about for 800 pages? Well, there's a whole lot as you can imagine, starting with Penn Cage and his fiancee, Caitlin Masters. Things start off pretty rough as they are on the run from a wealthy businessman, Brody Royal, the Double Eagles who are a KKK sect, as well as corrupt police officers and their leader, Forrest Knox. By their standards things still aren't half bad, but then Dr. Tom Cage, Penn's dad, is trying to outrun a possibly bogus murder charge as well as the cops who are trying to kill him.

As you can see, Penn Cage probably regrets signing up for the role of protagonist, having his hands more than full with people trying to kill him. For a good part of the book, we follow Penn as he tries to devise a way to defuse the situation for himself and his father, by either making a deal with the devil (or Forrest Knox, same thing), or taking care of him the old-fashioned way. He makes for an interesting and entertaining protagonist, managing to lend a certain lightness to even the darkest of times. Watching him tackle one problem after the other is something I could do all day long; there is pretty much no reason to dislike him, and let me assure you that you'll get to know him well enough over a few hundred pages that you'll truly start to care for his fate, and at times even forget he's a fictional character.

With her fiance being a tad held up with all of his responsibilities, Caitlin Masters seizes the opportunity to add even more to their plate and opens an investigation into some unsolved civil rights murders, related to those KKK Double Eagles... and she believes that may be the key to taking them down. Thus begins her long trek into the backwaters of the Mississippi River, where she turns back the pages of history to find a secret killing ground used by the Klan for more than two hundred years, a place known only as “the bone tree”.

Caitlin's investigation has a lot of mystery elements, that's for sure, as well as the plots and twists you would expect from a writer like Greg Iles. You never feel cheated, nor are there any illogical eye-rolling scenes where people jump to conclusions. Rather, the author really tries to surprise you, or at least elicit some kind of strong emotion like fear or disgust when he presents new revelations. Apart from that though, Caitlin's side of the story is also Greg Iles tackling the subject of racial strife in the best way he knows how. He tells us the real stories of what people went through in those times, and the depth of his writing really shows that he spent a lot of time and effort doing his research. There isn't much happiness to be found in this domain of the book, and some of the passages aren't for the faint of heart... but they are the honest, educative truth, and I believe turning away from it is an intellectual crime of sorts.

Taking a step back and looking at the whole picture, The Bone Tree is a long book that sets out to accomplish many things, and Greg Iles exquisitely ensures that it does them all. It has an entertaining and action-packed thriller, a palpitating historical murder mystery, and many eye-opening truths about horrors people suffered in the South not long ago. It's a book I recommend with all my heart, especially to those of you who haven't had the fortune of experiencing Greg Iles' writing yet.

Greg Iles

Personal site

Greg Iles is an American novelist who was born in Germany and was raised in Natchez, Mississippi, which is where many of his novels take place. Before becoming a novelist and publishing his first work, Spandau Phoenix (which eventually became a New York Bestseller), Iles was a singer, songwriter and guitarist.

More of the Greg Iles' book reviews:
Natchez Burning

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