Wednesday, March 06, 2019

“Cemetery Road” by Greg Iles – The Land of Hidden Truths

Cemetery Road by Greg Iles (Book cover)

Greg Iles has never had any problems depicting both the best and the worst of what the South has to offer, and in Cemetery Road he returns there once again to dive into a filthy pool of treachery and deceit.

It tells the story of Marshall McEwan, a journalist who returns to his Mississippi hometown of Bienville and ends up investigating two murders which turned the community inside out. As he is about to discover, the journey awaiting him has only begun to bare its dark and ugly teeth.

Greg Iles Exposes the Cesspool

While it might not be inherently worse than many other places in the world, the Deep South in the United States of America does carry with it some special connotations of ruthless and lawless life, at least where the typical depiction of it is concerned. While it may not exclusively be a home to bible thumpers, poor dysfunctional families and corrupt authority figures, it certainly sets the perfect stage for Greg Iles to explore in his thrillers, with the latest one heading down this path being Cemetery Road.

Taking us to Bienville, Mississippi, Greg Iles begins to tell us the intricate story of Marshall McEwan who decided to leave his hometown at the age of eighteen. After making a name for himself as a reporter in D.C., he receives news of his father's dire health and is forced to return back home to take over the family newspaper. The town seems to be dying a slow and painful death, but it seems a ray of hope yet shines upon them: a Chinese company wants to build a pulp paper mill and a connection to the interstate, a deal which could net the town a billion dollars. Unfortunately, this is where the good news starts and ends.

As the deal is about to be settled, two murders take place and shake the town to its core. One of the victims is Buck McKibben, an archaeologist who happened to be Marshall's surrogate father way back in the day. Feeling compelled to at least investigate the ordeal for the old man's memory, Marshall puts on his reporter's hat and sets out into a dangerous battlefield even he might not see coming. As is always the case when huge sums of money are involved, things are as far as possible from being simple, and the threads he begins to unravel could very well lead all the way to the top.

Straightforward Thrills

If you are already familiar with the work of Greg Iles, then you likely already know what to expect in terms of the type of story he thrives on telling: the straightforward kind, and I don't mean this in a negative way at all, nor to imply simplicity. Rather, it's the sort of tale where you can afford to take virtually all of what is said at face value without analyzing anything too much. It's the sort of plot which works by putting the reader in a more passive role of observer rather than analyst, and I believe there is a big place in this world for stories which entertain without springing additional worries.

As far as I am aware, and I could definitely be wrong here, but it doesn't seem as if there are any real hidden depths here, with the story developing logically, the good guys being truly likeable, and the bad guys being totally despicable. Politicians seem corrupt to the core, and the nigh-invisible elite live to push the limits of greed and decadence. When I put it like that it does sound a bit cartooney, but ultimately I feel it gives the perfect foundation for the thriller story Iles is trying to tell.

Speaking of the plot itself, you can bet the house it moves along swiftly with plenty enough twists to keep the reader surprised. We seldom have any time to take breaks or even reflect too much on what's happening as Marshall races from one clue to the next while desperately trying to stay afloat, preserving his life and freedom in the process. It's a big old chaotic mess in the end, but one the author guides us through successfully.

Portrait of Soul Suckers

It seems to me virtually every Greg Iles novel, at least the ones taking place in the South, deserve a commendation for the poignancy with which they depict corruption, especially when it concerns the human soul. The plot does move along at a rapid pace, but somehow Iles also finds the time to inject evocative and sometimes harrowing descriptions of the little town our story takes place in. Though it might be forgotten by most of the world, the drama within burns hot as ever with deception, grief and greed seemingly found at every turn. Though I cannot vouch for the veracity of Iles' depiction of small Southern town corruption, I can vouch for the ease with which I imagined the place thanks to the author's writing abilities.

I particularly enjoyed Iles' portrayal of the town's inhabitants and the complexity of character with which he endowed many of them. They all have their own role to play in the story, their personal aspirations to fulfil, secrets to hide and relationships to maintain. Though the author doesn't dedicate too much time to describing these people, I found it quite surprising how much he was able to achieve on this front. These fleshed-out inhabitants are what sell the town and the atmosphere the author is trying to build, they are the element which allow us to suspend our disbelief when the darker aspects of the story begin to make their way to the front.

The Final Verdict

Cemetery Road by Greg Iles is yet another engrossing thriller of the Deep South in the author's ever-increasing catalogue. His portrayal of the small corrupt town of Bienville and its inhabitants is flawless in every way, while the fast-paced plot keeps delivering the thrills, twists and turns this sort of book thrives on. I highly recommend it to anyone who is into Southern thrillers and/or wants to witness the literary prowess of Greg Iles.

Greg Iles

Personal site

Greg Iles is an American novelist who was born in Germany and was raised in Natchez, Mississippi, which is where many of his novels take place. Before becoming a novelist and publishing his first work, Spandau Phoenix (which eventually became a New York Bestseller), Iles was a singer, songwriter and guitarist.

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