Iíve had my problems with Greg Iles books in the past, but one thing I can always say about them is that theyíre enormously readable and gripping from beginning to end. Often itís only afterwards that I have an issue with the book as I reflect on what I read. This usually happens with his Penn Cage books, as I find the character to be annoyingly self-righteous at times. I have to admit, though: the guy can write a thriller. The same can be said for Ilesís latest Cage book, The Devil's Punchbowl. Itís a long read that kept me turning the pages, yet afterward I had a faint distaste in my mouth, like a curry sauce thatís delicious going down but leaves a burning, lingering aftertaste.
Penn Cage became mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, to save the town from becoming the hive of scum and villainy that it had been slowly turning into. Cage hasnít been able to do what he wanted, however, and heís starting to feel like he should just give it all up. One of his accomplishments was bringing a fourth riverboat casino to Natchez, the Magnolia Queen. But thereís 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 canít 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 itís a good thing that Cage happens to know some people high up in the personal security and Special Forces hierarchy. Itís also quite the coincidence that the pilot for the powerful businessman whom Cage is supposed to be wooing just happens to be an ex-military guy featured in one of Ilesís previous books. Isnít 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 itís almost funny watching the cloak-and-dagger situations unfold - secure radios, satellite phones, safe houses, the anxiety of trying to find a place in town that Sands hasnít had bugged, and all that. Itís a good thing that Cageís friend went to him for help and not somebody else. If he had, the story would have ended quite quickly with Sandsí 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 Iím surprised they donít have Snidely Whiplash moustaches (maybe they do, but I donít remember Iles describing them that way). The casual brutality Quinn exhibits is supposed to turn the reader off from the character, but it sometimes just elicits laughter at how excessive it is.
That being said, The Devil's Punchbowl is not for the squeamish. Some of the violence is almost comic-book in its intensity. Other times, however, itís 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.
In spite of it all, I was riveted throughout the book, hardly able to put it down. Ilesís prose is excellent, as always, with different styles from chapter to chapter. The narrative unfolds in both first person by Cage himself (which has the unfortunate side effect of heightening his self-righteousness, but you canít have everything), as well as third-person chapters with various other characters. For some reason I canít fathom, the third-person chapters are printed in italics, which I guess makes them distinctive if youíre just opening the book to a random page and does emphasize the difference between the two styles. Also, Iles tells his story in present tense, which adds to the sense of immediacy.
Ultimately, youíll devour The Devil's Punchbowl quickly if youíre a fan of the ďbloody knifeĒ genre, but you may find yourself looking back on it and thinking ďI donít like any of these characters.Ē Itís not a problem youíll have during the read, however. Just try not to think about it afterward, and youíll be fine.