The Bone Tree
(2015) by American author Greg Iles is the second of three detective novels known as the Natchez Burning
trilogy (each set in Natchez, Mississippi). The novel follows a classic hard boiler plot (though at more than eight hundred pages, it differs from classic detective novels that are far shorter). Iles was praised for blending historical fact and personal history in a tale set in his own hometown.
This family saga explores the themes of loyalty, sacrifice, true evil, community divisiveness, and cohesion. The Bone Tree
is based on the true story of journalist Stanley Nelson who investigated race-based murders that were covered up by regional authorities until his articles threw light on the cases.
The previous book in the trilogy, Natchez Burning
(2014), ended with the protagonist’s father, Dr. Thomas (Tom) Cage, being accused of murdering a police officer, Frank Sr., and Viola Turner, Cage’s former nurse and lover.
In the prologue, old-time FBI detective John Kaiser, helped by his wife, Jordan Glass, begins investigating a murder most likely perpetrated by white supremacists. Kaiser hesitates to tell the mayor that Brody Royal, for all his evil, is not the top leader of the neo-KKK group.
The narrative switches to first-person in chapter one, as told by the hero of each book, the former lawyer turned novelist and civil servant, Penn Cage. His finance and trusty sidekick, journalist Caitlin Masters, has been researching unsolved hate murders around the south. They are at the police department giving their testimony to Sheriff Walker “Walt” Dennis about the murders that happened in the previous book, Natchez Burning
. Their presence at the police station is especially shocking as Penn is the current mayor of Natchez. He and his pregnant fiancé nearly died after a powerful businessman, Brody Royal, burned their house down. Penn, who killed Brody in self-defense, thinks that he no longer has to worry about the neo-KKK group.
Little do they know that John Kaiser has hacked Caitlin’s computer to review her research about the KKK. They also don’t know that someone else has been remotely erasing all of her notes.
Everyone must deal with the Double Eagles, a subset of the KKK (based on a real-life group, The Silver Dollar Group). They’re lead by Forrest Knox, a sociopath callous toward others. He supports the murder of black people and “race traitors”—white people who support civil rights. Worse, he’s in a position of power: the chief of Mississippi’s Criminal Investigations Bureau, which means he can easily command people to turn a blind eye whenever an African-American is murdered.
Meanwhile, John and Jordan dig up evidence that suggests that the Double Eagles were connected to the JFK assassination in 1969. They’re double motivated to find Dr. Tom Cage because they believe he has information on who really shot JFK.
Forrest sent his henchmen to find and kill Dr. Cage, but he outsmarted them, leaving them in the ditch: he told the one who survived to tell Forrest that he will keep silent about the past murders, and he’ll instruct Penn and Caitlin to do the same if Forrest stops hunting them.
Caitlin finds Dr. Cage and demands that he tells her what’s going on. He admits that he helped cover up the murder of the police officer Frank Sr. after his nurse/lover Viola killed Frank Sr. in self-defense; Frank, Sr., additionally, may have been the sniper who shot JFK. He also says that Knox raped Viola when they were teens.
Jordan and Caitlin learn about “The Bone Tree,” a notorious site where the Double Eagles lynched people. Realizing that Penn is on their case, the Double Eagles step up their game to keep him from discovering the truth. Forrest locates Dr. Cage and coerces him into accepting a plea deal of silence.
Jordan has business in New Orleans, so Caitlin ventures to The Bone Tree by herself. Tricked by Forrest’s associates, she is shot in the heart in front of The Bone Tree. Before dying, she sees Dr. Cage lying in the tree in handcuffs, either dead or unconscious. She quickly gives Dr. Cage a peppermint to wake him up. He gives her some sage medical advice that will keep her alive for a little bit, but then he falls back into a comma. Penn eventually arrives at The Bone Tree, but Caitlin is already dead.
Penn’s friends caution him against rash retaliatory measures. To save his father, it soon becomes clear that Penn Cage can either kill Forrest Knox or agree to never talk about Knox’s crimes. After the murder of Caitlin, his second wife to be violently murdered, Penn is increasingly set on murdering Knox. Days pass, then Penn hunts Forrest Knox down. When Forrest taunts Penn with the fact that Caitlin was pregnant when she died, Penn kills Forrest Knox.
The novel concludes with Penn exonerated thanks to the right political connections. FBI representatives return to DC with mounds of evidence against the Double Eagles, but one of the thugs purposefully crashes the plane. Thus, the question of whether the Double Eagles will ever be brought to justice is left open for the sequel, Mississippi Blood