John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton
jheaton

Books 2006: Turning Angel

Last year, someone on my friends list, as part of a project to read 100 books in 2005, posted something about every book she read. Watch me steal her idea!

Turning Angel by Greg Iles
ISBN: 0743234715
Publisher: Scribner Book Company
Date: Dec 2005
Page Count: 502
Buy this book!

From the dust jacket:

Turning Angel marks the long-awaited return of Penn Cage, the lawyer hero of The Quiet Game, and introduces Drew Elliott, the highly respected doctor who saved Penn's life in a hiking accident when they were boys. As two of the most prominent citizens of Natchez, Drew and Penn sit on the school board of their alma mater, St. Stephen's Prep. When the nude body of a young female student is found near the Mississippi River, the entire community is shocked -- but no one more than Penn, who discovers that his best friend was entangled in a passionate relationship with the girl and may be accused of her murder.

On the surface, Kate Townsend seems the most unlikely murder victim imaginable. A star student and athlete, she'd been accepted to Harvard and carried the hope and pride of the town on her shoulders. But like her school and her town, Kate also had a secret life -- one about which her adult lover knew little. When Drew begs Penn to defend him, Penn allows his sense of obligation to override his instinct and agrees. Yet before he can begin, both men are drawn into a dangerous web of blackmail and violence. Drew reacts like anything but an innocent man, and Penn finds himself doubting his friend's motives and searching for a path out of harm's way.

More dangerous yet is Shad Johnson, the black district attorney whose dream is to send a rich white man to death row in Mississippi. At Shad's order, Drew is jailed, the police cease hunting Kate's killer, and Penn realizes that only by finding Kate's murderer himself can he save his friend's life.

With his daughter's babysitter as his guide, Penn penetrates the secret world of St. Stephen's, a place that parents never see, where reality veers so radically from appearance that Penn risks losing his own moral compass. St. Stephen's is a dark mirror of the adult world, one populated by steroid-crazed jocks, girls desperate for attention, jaded teens flirting with nihilism, and hidden among them all -- one true psychopath. It is Penn's journey into the heart of his alma mater that gives Turning Angel its hypnotic power, for on that journey he finds that the intersection of the adult and nearly adult worlds is a dangerous place indeed. By the time Penn arrives at the shattering truth behind Kate Townsend's death, his quiet Southern town will never be the same.

I picked Turning Angel up because it has been designated as a "President's Pick," which is to say it's receiving a big promotional push from my bookstore chain because the president of the company particularly liked it. The last President's Pick (Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald) was one of the best books I read last year, so I figured it was worth a try.
 
There were a couple of glaring problems with the book; the identity of the killer was appallingly easy to guess, which is never a good thing when you're reading a mystery; and the circumstances surrounding the death are strikingly similar to those in Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. Also, I felt like Iles was indulging in a certain amount of demonization of outsiders. I don't know if the real Natchez, Mississippi, has the kind of problems Iles described in Turning Angel, but if it does, I imagine that the root of the problem lies with native Mississippians, not with transplanted Northerners, Asian gangs, and other assorted foreigners.
 
That said, I liked Turning Angel. It's well-written, with interesting characters and the kind of twisty plot that you like to see in a mystery/thriller. Iles also has some interesting things to say about race and racial politics, teen sexuality, and illegal drugs. It's not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a step or two above the usual Big Dumb Thriller.

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