Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Devil's Punchbowl

The Devil's Punchbowl
© 2009 Greg Iles
592 pages

"This town is under siege, and the biggest threat always comes from within."

Recently I read an interview with David Mack, in which he stated that good drama comes from putting mature characters through hell -- repeatedly. In fact, Mack said, you can tell his favorite characters by those who his plots abuse the most.  If Iles takes the same attitude, he must adore Penn Gage. Gage, once a big-city district attorney and now a successful author, returned to his family home  in Natchez, Mississippi following the death of his wife (The Quiet Game) and has in succeeding novels (Turning Angel) fought corruption and crime in his beloved hometown. Deciding to take a more active approach in reversing Natchez's decline, Penn runs for mayor and wins: people regard him as a good man, a hero in self-serving times. Heroes aren't immune to disappointment and frustration, though: after two years in office Cage realizes Natchez's problems are too big for one man to handle and he wants to step down.  A friend approaching him on the eve of a busy weekend about casino riverboat fraud is the last thing he needs  -- but when his friend is savagely tortured and killed a day later,  a once-simple case of fraud becomes a life and death struggle with Penn's family, friends, and town hanging in the balance.

Sinister goings-on aboard the riverboat casino Magnolia Queen were never limited to tax fraud, for when Cage and his friend first met in a quiet cemetery the first night of the novel, Cage saw pictures to make a man's blood run cold:  photos which documented both underage prostitution and  a vicious dog-fighting circuit run by the dark character of Johnathan Sands, the Queen's general manager who switches between a posh English accent and a working-class Irish brogue at the drop of a hat and who will kill a man's family just as easily. Sands and his lackey Quinn feed on the pain of others, and they target Penn after realizing he knows more about them than they'd like. Cage assumed nailing Sands for fraud would be the most effective way of taking him down, but now that Gage is a target he'll need to work in the dark. Surviving their plans for him will require the assistance of friends -- a grizzled Texas Ranger, a retired Army commando, and a combat pilot for starters; the later two have made appearances in The Quiet Game and Third Degree.

Devil's Punchbowl is easily the most violent of Iles' books that I've read: the villains' chief interests are training killer dogs, torture, and rape. Dominant themes include the familiar (heroism & sacrifice) and the struggle between brutality and idealism. Iles uses the fascination with violence and gore to depict humans as instinctively savage creature, with Sands and Quinn being complete monsters. Penn and his allies struggle with their own conflicting desires: idealists like Penn and his old girlfriend, the journalist Caitlin Masters, want to bring Sands to justice.  Others in their party think it necessary to deal with Sands on his own terms: "I think Johnathan Sands has become a one-bullet problem." Penn must defeat the monster without becoming the monster.

As usual, Iles' work is rich in background: the old-south mystique haunts the reader even as Penn is soaring through the air in a helicopter or using his 'Star Trek' satellite phone to coordinate actions with his allies. There are also plot turns, although they're not quite as gut-wrenching as in prior novels, and Penn is as ever a sympathetic character. He struggles with his desire to do the right thing, knowing it endangers his young daughter. Is Natchez worth his daughter? His father?

Punchbowl is a gripping read, with plenty of action for those who want it. The themes are provocative, and the main protagonists compelling. Readers will be out for Sands' blood by book's end, and the scenes of his pleasures are not for the faint of heart.

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