Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Quiet Game

The Quiet Game
© 1999 Greg Iles
576 pages

Caitlin Masters: "God, I'm trapped in a Southern gothic novel!" (p. 204)

Wow. I have rarely been as transfixed by a book as I have in the past two days while reading The Quiet Game. The book is my sister's, and she recommended and lent it to me, describing it as somewhat similar to John Grisham. Her more extended description matched that: she told me that it was the story of a lawyer turned novelist who returned to his hometown -- the small but storied town of Natchez, Mississippi -- and found himself involved in a mystery of sorts that required him to become a servant of the law once more.

We're introduced to Penn Gage as he stands in line in Disneyworld, trying not to cry in public because his four-year-old claims that she just saw her recently deceased mother in the crowd. Gage loved his wife, and her memory haunts him. "Haunting" is a word that can be applied to much of the book's plot and atmosphere. Gage decides to return to his parents' home so that he and his daughter Annie can adjust to life without their beloved Sarah, only to find that his father is being blackmailed by a thug. Thomas Gage, Penn's father, is far too good of a man to be humiliated like this, and Penn decides to take action -- not knowing that this issue, as important as it seems to him and the reader for the first hundred pages, is going to be rendered trivial. A casual remark to the town's newest reporter -- Caitlin Masters, whose wealthy daddy has just purchased the local newspaper and who is anxious to make a name for herself in investigative journalism -- dredges up a murder from 1968: the murder of Del Payton, a local civil rights leader whose killers were never found. Or...were they?

Masters promptly publishes the remark, and Payton's family comes forth. In a town with deep-seated but devotedly ignored racial tensions, the Gages are the rare white family that seems to give a damn about Natchez's marginalized black population. They ask Penn Gage to find out what happened to Del, to give his spirit rest. He regretfully declines them at first, but when more ghosts arise he finds himself drawn toward the case when the name of "Judge" Leo Marston, a powerful politician who has the town and apparently much of the state in his pocket, is somehow connected to the crime. Marston's elegant daughter - Livy Marston, an extraordinarily fantastic creature -- was Penn Gage's first and greatest love, and the Judge ruined that relationship and nearly destroyed Gage's father when Martson pursued a dramatic lawsuit against him. At first, Gage seeks to destroy Marston to get him back for ruining his and his father's life -- but as the plot develops, he will rediscover the passion for justice he lost when he removed himself from the law and the passion for life he lost when his wife passed away.

This is one book with a lot of layers: we have the plot-driving mutual hatred between the Marston and Gages, a romantic story that develops when Livy Martson returns to town and throws Gage into the past and the what-could-have-been (further agitating him against her father), the action element (which kept my attention even though I tend to scan over action sequences, pausing only if a character gets hurt), almost a dozen secondary characters struggling with personal demons that all relate to the plot, and the legal battle that ties everything together and ends lastly. All this is tied together gorgeously: I could not leave the book be, I had to keep reading it, and when it finally ended and I saw the last period I was hit with the feeling of hearing the echo of a symphony that just finished.

What is so appealing about this book? The plot and story are very well-done, I think: to say it kept my attention is an understatement. Not only is it tightly-weaved, but it's deep. When something happens, it will effect at least three of the plot elements or subplots, and what will happen can't be predicted. There were a lot of plot twists: the last one was the most dramatic. It was if part of a song was there, but very subtle, and then toward the end it builds up and then that part of the song just guides the ending. I was also entranced by the format of the southern gothic, which is not a genre I am familiar with, except in that it left a bad taste in my mouth when I first encountered it in English 102. I didn't know what was meant by it, but I had vague impressions that it was romantic in the cultural sense -- not in the Cupid's Arrow sense. That is true of this novel, especially with the character of Livy Marson. Despite my aversion to romanticism, I was able to enjoy this book -- to be enthralled about it. Gage and the other characters gripped me right from the start , and they never let go.

I am pleased that my local library has other books by Greg Iles. I will be reading more of this guy, although I suspect that this book has set the bar so high that I will be disappointed by any other books I read.

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