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Another typical Iles read. Good bloody knife book, though!
on 2 February 2011
I've had my problems with Greg Iles' books in the past, but one thing I can always say about them is that they're enormously readable and will keep you gripped from beginning to end. Often it's only afterwards that I have an issue with the book as I reflect on what I read. This usually happens in one of his Penn Cage books, as I find the character to be annoyingly self-righteous at times. I have to admit, though, that the guy can write a thriller. The same can be said for Iles' latest Cage book, The Devil's Punchbowl. It's a long read that kept me turning the pages, yet afterward I had a faint distaste in my mouth, like a curry sauce that tastes good going down but has a burning, lingering aftertaste.
Penn Cage became mayor of Natchez, Mississippi in order to save the town from becoming the hive of scum and villainy that it was slowly turning into. Cage hasn't been able to do what he wanted, however, and is starting to feel like he should just give it all up. One of his accomplishments was bringing a fourth riverboat casinos to Natchez, the Magnolia Queen. But there's a sinister secret behind the Queen and its manager, Jonathan Sands. An old friend brings Penn evidence of horrible atrocities going on behind the scenes: prostitution, dog-fighting, and many other vices. Penn can't go to the police, as he has no idea who is on his side in this seamy, corruption-filled city. All he knows is that his family is in danger, and he has to protect them as well as bring an end to all of the depravity.
Once again, Penn Cage is at his self-righteous best in The Devil's Punchbowl, as he spends pages and pages agonizing over either his guilt at what his inaction has allowed to happen or his determination to not let Sands get away with what he is doing. Sands has him trapped with threats to his family and friends, so it's a good thing that Cage happens to know some people high up in the personal security and Special Forces hierarchy! It's also quite the coincidence that the pilot for the powerful businessman that Cage is supposed to be wooing just happens to be an ex-military guy who was in one of Iles' previous books. Isn't it perfectly nice that the pilot happens to be good friends with a former Army sniper who was in Iraq and now works for law enforcement elsewhere in Mississippi?
Yes, it all does sound a bit convenient, and it's almost funny watching all of the cloak and dagger situations unfold, with secure radios, satellite phones, safehouses, the anxiety of trying to find a place in town that Sands doesn't have bugged, and all of that. It's a good thing that Cage's friend went to him for help and not somebody else. If he had, the story would have ended quite quickly with Sands' threats, as nobody else would be equipped to handle the situation.
The over the top aspect of the book extends to Sands and his security chief, Seamus Quinn. Both men are so evil that I'm surprised they don't have Snidely Whiplash moustaches (maybe they do, but I don't remember Iles describing them that way). The casual brutality that Quinn exhibits is supposed to turn the reader off from the character, but it sometimes just made me laugh because of how excessive it was.
That being said, The Devil's Punchbowl is not for the squeamish. Yes, some of the violence is almost comic-book in its intensity. Other times, however, it's just presented in a matter of fact fashion that can turn the stomach of somebody not ready for it. This typically happens in a dog-fighting scene.
Despite all of that, I was held riveted throughout the book, hardly able to put it down. Iles' prose is excellent, as always, with different styles from chapter to chapter. The book is told both in first person by Cage himself (which has the unfortunate side effect of heightening his self-righteousness, but you can't have everything) as well as various third person chapters with various other characters. For some reason I can't fathom, the third person chapters are printed in italics, which I guess makes them distinctive if you're just opening the book to a random page and does emphasize the difference between the two styles. Also, the story is told in present tense, which does add to the immediacy of the story.
Ultimately, The Devil's Punchbowl is a book that you will devour quickly if you're a fan of the "bloody knife" genre, but you may find yourself looking back on it and thinking "I don't like any of these characters." It's not a problem you'll have during the read, however, and you will enjoy it. Just try not to think about it afterward, and you'll be fine.
Originally published on Curled Up With a Good Book © David Roy, 2010