Friday, June 12, 2009

Turning Angel

Turning Angel
© 2005 Greg Iles
501 pages

I didn't intend to read two books by Greg Iles this week: frankly, I don't want to exhaust my library's Iles collection prematurely. As it happens, I finished Third Degree much more quickly than I anticipated and -- as I happened to be at my sister's house babysitting, and as she is similarly working her way through Iles -- I decided to read from one of her checked-out Iles books. Turning Angel, like The Quiet Game, is a first-person thriller written from the eyes of Penn Gage, Houston prosecutor-turned-novelist. Turning Angel is set five years after the conclusion of The Quiet Game, but in the same town of Natchez, Mississippi. Gage's hometown -- to which he returned after the death of his wife -- has deteriorated somewhat in those five years, as its major manufacturing employers have left, leaving the town with only tourism as its only viable source of income.

On the May afternoon that this book begins, though, such things are not on the minds of its citizens, particularly not those whose children go to St. Stephen's Preparatory school, which is approaching its graduation ceremonies. The quiet anticipation is broken, however, when the body of a St. Stephen's senior washes up on a creekbed in town -- murdered. Victim Kate Townsend was a Natchez celebrety, headed for Harvard and the darling of the preparatory school. Her death is shocking enough, but soon rumors spread that Gage's best friend and respected physician, Drew Elliot, was engaged in a romantic relationship with the not-quite-eighteen year old.

The plot-driving tension begins to build when Elliot asks Gage to once again pick up the lawyery banner and defend him against charges of sexual battery and murder -- but things are not as simple as they might appear. The book's title, Turning Angel, comes from a statue in town that seems to turn on its pedestal as pedestrians and cars pass nearby, its eyes following them. Appearances are not reality, and this Gage realizes as he sits in his car following the murder of a local police office with whom he was talking: the then-latest murder in a string of nearly a dozen murders that will result in a matter of days when the book's plot is nearing its climax. The murders appear to be drug-related -- but what does Kate Townsend have to do with drug lords from Biloxi?

While Gage investigates matters to build a defense of his friend, he finds he must contend with race politics -- a theme repeated from The Quiet Game, but unfortunately true to real life -- and the sexual nature of high school culture. The book, like Iles' other novels I've read, moves quickly and never loses my interest -- although I liked this less than the others, chiefly because the sex seemed to be gratuitous after a while. If I were introducing someone to Iles, I would recommend something else as a first read. What did impress me was how many voices Gage had to assume in writing this book: an agnostic novelist, a fundamentalist preacher, a liberal Shelby-Spong-type preacher, a high school senior trying to talk to the novelist about the role of sex in high school culture, and more. What is most striking -- especially when reading a eulogy given by the liberal preacher -- was that he does this well. Granted, Iles consults with people in writing, but that he is able to render believable impressions of people who are so different from one another speaks highly to me of his writing ability.

On page 205, Gage consults with a civil rights lawyer from the 1960s about the declining quality of leadership among American blacks, and he says something interesting. Remember that this is written in 2005:

"There's a crisis of black leadership in this country, Penn. The leaders of my era are relics of another age. A lost age, I'm sorry to say. [...] You've basically got three types of black leaders today. There's the managerial type, who pretends race isn't even an issue. He wants a large white constituency, but he also wants to keep the loyal blacks behind him. [...] Then you have your black protest leader. He's black, loud, and proud. He casts himself in the image Malcolm and Martin, but deep down he's nothing like them. He uses the ideals of those greater leaders only to get what he wants: personal status and power. Marion Barry, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan -- the list is endless. They're flashy, powerful, and dangerous. [...] [The third type is] the prophetic leader. That's Martin, Malcolm....Ellie Baker. The current generation has produced no leaders of this type, much less of that caliber. I'm watching Bara[c]k Obama, but I'm not sure yet."

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