Click here to read reviewer Angela McQuay's take on Turning Angel.
I've been a fan of Greg Iles since his second book, Black Cross. However, not being as much a fan of modern-day thrillers, I stopped reading him when he moved away from World War II. On a whim, I picked up Turning Angel and found myself engrossed in a very large novel that doesn't seem that large, holding my attention from the beginning and not letting go. It was only after I was finished that I realized that it wasn't quite as good as my speed would indicate.
After the events of The Quiet Game (a novel I have not read), lawyer Penn Cage has decided to remain in his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi to raise his now-motherless daughter. But things aren't quite as innocent there as they used to be when he was in high school. This is proven when a young high school girl named Kate Townsend is found dead by the creek. It soon comes to light that Penn's best friend from high school, Drew Elliott, has had a relationship with the 17-year-old for almost a year. Whether or not he is guilty of the murder, as most of the town believes once rumors of this relationship get out, he is still looking at years in prison for sex with an underage girl. Drew asks Penn to help him out this jam, but evidence continues to surface that makes it look worse for him. Did Drew do it? Or was Kate involved in much more than an affair with an older man? The seemingly innocent society of Natchez may soon be shattered by drugs, blackmail, and even more murder.
I'm not sure how Iles does it, but he definitely makes Turning Angel a page-turner. I read a huge number of pages at a time, staying up well past my bedtime to get through just one more chapter. After I wrapped it up, I set the book down and realized that I hardly liked anybody in this book and didn't feel particularly sympathetic to anyone except one character. I suppose Iles could have been making a point about how we're all flawed, but did he have to make everybody unlikable too? The murder suspect is annoying, going on and on about how he and Kate were in love and were going to move away together and doing nothing to help his defense. Penn's girlfriend, Caitlin, a newspaper publisher, has different goals and desires than Penn does, but she seems pretty cold for the most part. None of other Natchez residents are any better.
The only sympathetic character in the entire book is Mia, Penn's babysitter. She's a very intelligent yet very real high school student. Iles does make her a bit too perfect by making her valedictorian, head cheerleader and extremely popular in school, but he makes up for that by making her a typical example of the perils of today's high school life. She has experimented with drugs, had sex with at least a couple of different boys, and now she is in love with Penn. I really liked her, and while part of me was hoping she and Penn would hook up, another part of me was hoping that they wouldn't as it would be completely inappropriate. Iles covers that by making her eighteen, so it's not quite as bad as Drew and Kate's relationship, but it would still be a bad thing considering the responsibility Penn has for her.
As for the murder plot, Iles tends to pile on in this one, adding to the fact that the cast is easy to dislike. Things escalate to drug rings and Asian crime gangs, local politics and racial divides. Characters have a lot of dark secrets, many involving underage sex or drugs. There's even a Croatian exchange student who ends up here and gets mired in all of this (admittedly a lot of it is his own doing, but that's beside the point). He certainly doesn't portray Natchez to be a very nice place to live, with a lot of bad things going on for a town of that size (only 16,000 people or so). Racial issues are still prevalent in this town, and Iles doesn't sugarcoat any of it. I can't imagine the locals are too happy with that, but maybe the fact that a famous author lives there mitigates that problem.
A raft of coincidences in the book get a bit irksome after a while. Penn needs safe passage into an apartment building in the black side of town, a building that's notorious for rough characters. Good thing Penn's father is a doctor who has treated most of the black people in town and is on good terms with them. The same thing happens with getting Drew a good lawyer to rival the arrogant and ambitious black district attorney. The lawyer happens to be an old civil rights activist who Penn's father has treated. Put all together, it is just a bit too perfect.
All of that said, why am I saying 4 stars for this book? Iles' writing style really appeals to me, and any book that keeps you reading when you really shouldn't be has to be considered a winner in some sense. The characters and situations are attractive - as long as you didn't stop and think about them too much - and I really wanted to see more of what happened to Mia. She really deserves a book of her own, one with some characters that suit her. Turning Angel, as riveting as it can be, just isn't that book. You'll finish this one quickly, but I'm not sure how well it will go down after the fact.