The Devil’s Punchbowl, Greg Iles

I completed my first read of 2010 last night – The Devil’s Punchbowl by Greg Iles.  Even in the non-light of an early January morning, I’m not sure how I feel about it. At first I thought my ambiguity meant I wouldn’t even review it on this site, since I prefer to review books I have stronger reactions to, good or bad, but the reasons for my ambiguity bother me and I think they might be worth exploring, just a bit.

I loved at least the first half of this book, if not the first three-quarters. The book is set in Natchez, Mississippi, a place I’ve long been fascinated with (and now wish we had added to our itinerary during our deep South vacation), and Iles does a fantastic job describing Natchez, from the natural beauty surrounding the area to the town’s slow downward spiral over the course of the last many years. The narrator, Penn Cage, is the town mayor, former lawyer and current best-selling writer, and he is a trustworthy, compassionate voice to follow.

The premise of the book – that the riverboat casinos along the Mississippi have brought a criminal element to town, an element that stretches gambling from the casinos into the woods surrounding Natchez with dog fighting, as well as welcoming prostitution, drugs, etc., is a good one. For quite a while as the book took off I thought I would be able to write a pretty fun, peppy review – do you like bad guys from Ireland with unclear ties to the IRA? Do like cocktail waitresses who serve as spies and are just hoping for a little redemption? Do you like a handsome, smart hero who you know will get the bad guys and the girl, in the end? Do you like books that take place in the south and crochety old doctors who save the day? Then read The Devil’s Punchbowl!

But something happened in the last third of the book (and there might be some spoilers coming up so if you think you might read it go ahead and stop now). First, let me say, I am not a woman who minds violence in her books. I LOVE crime novels and mysteries and rarely have I come across a bothersome severed head or a worrisome mysterious mass grave – these are not things I lose sleep over. Secondly, when I am reading for pleasure I rarely engage my inner English major voice – I LOVE book blogs and writers that do but I truly don’t read as a critic, especially as any sort of feminist critic. It’s part of the reason I didn’t pursue a Ph.D. – I LOVE reading, but sometimes I find applying theory and critique to books quite hard labor. And so.

The last three hundred pages or so were too violent for me. I don’t want to give away the details entirely but the situation Iles put his female characters in – well, at times I had to stop reading, they were so degrading. I kept thinking to myself “Wow, this author REALLY hates women.” I have no idea if Iles is one of those animal rights people (and here I sound dismissive but I am not, I swear) who believe that the way we treat animals is inevitably how we treat fellow humans, and cruelty to animals means we will treat our own race cruelly (all true, I don’t doubt!) but I kept thinking he wanted the reader to draw some parallels between the way the criminals treated the dogs and the way they treated women. But really, it didn’t come across that way for me, at all – the way the two main female characters, Caitlyn and Linda, are treated near the end of the book was so terrible that I literally felt uncomfortable while reading the scenes. And once I was uncomfortable, once I was taken out of that zone of the willing suspension of disbelief, I couldn’t fall back into the narrative and found myself riled at all of the following action, beginning with the fact that the woman who sleeps around with a lot of men and works only as a cocktail waitress dies the worst death I have ever read in a book while the virginal newspaper reporter-heroine survives, to the fact that while said newspaper reporter (Caitlyn) swears to her lover Penn Cage that she was not raped or injured while kept captive (and she wasn’t in the course of the novel) but Penn Cage silently questions this and will always wonder if she was raped (and so what, Penn Cage? Does that mean you will love her less? And why don’t you believe her? The reader knows she’s telling you the truth!) to the ending, which, people, IS A CLIFFHANGER. Yes, 800 some ridiculous pages later and Iles doesn’t even bother to complete the story. I threw the book across the room last night when I finished.

And so. I don’t think that it is over for me and Gregory Iles – I have thoroughly enjoyed two other books of his that I have read and never before have I thought negatively about him as an author, but this book was hard – too hard, for me. I honestly can’t think of anyone I would actually recommend this to, but I am bothered by this because it’s the situations in the book  – fictional situations – that cause me to feel this way, and not the writing or character development or plot. There is something about ME that is bothered by this book  – and someone else could very well love it.

Heading back to the library to return my books today – four of which I didn’t even read – definitely the month is off to a slow reading start for me – I’ve been in a bit of January fugue state lately. Hopefully I can find the perfect book to shake me out of this state!

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12 Responses to The Devil’s Punchbowl, Greg Iles

  1. Stefanie says:

    Why do authors have to go and do stuff like that? If it’s a male author especially it’s hard to tell if he’s trying to make a point, as you suggest, or if he just hates women. What a disappointment that it began so well but ended badly. hope the next book is fantastic from cover to cover!

    • nICHOLE says:

      I DIDN’T GET THAT IMPRESSION AT ALL, HE WRITES ABOUT THE EVILS OF HUMAN NATURE THERE ARE MEN OUT THERE WHO DO HATE WOMEN AND DO THOSE THINGS TO THEM- HE WAS SIMPLY EXPLORING REALITY IN HIS BOOK. I HARDLY BELIEVE THAT IT IS HIS PERCEPTION OF WOMEN AS A WHOLE OR HE WOULD NOT HAVE FEMALE CHARACTERS THAT ARE STRONG BUT NOT WITHOUT NATURAL CHARACTER FLAWS. HE IS A REALISTIC FICTION AUTHOR NOT A FANTASY OR ROMANCE WRITER.

      • valerie gallant says:

        I think if you have a tv or read the news he is drawing attention to the light of abuse in general .I read a previous book of his and as an abuse victim (in the past) he has done his research and deserves to be read .A fantastic author!!!

  2. sarala says:

    I just read my first Iles book, the one about sexual abuse (I’m blanking on the name). It was a shocker too at times but not over the top. Now that you suggest he hates women, hmm–is that why he’s drawn to abuse as a topic?
    I think I’ll skip this one but maybe pick up an older book.
    Thanks for the equivocal review. Those are good too.

  3. You’ve warned me. I loathe reading books that are abusive, whether to women, children or animals.

    Funnily enough, this is something I had to bear in mind writing my own murder mystery – NOT to always have women as victims, NOT to use sexual abuse as some kind of reader titillation, NOT to make violence against women the narrative thread, and yet to write something that is hopefully exciting and suspenseful.

    I hope that more readers are like you, Courtney, and not so inured to violence that the only way to get a thrill is to cross boundaries into a territory that is misogynist and sick.

  4. litlove says:

    You’d think that somewhere in the male creative brain, some bell would go off and the author would say to himself – extreme violence against women, oh that’s so old. I mean, hasn’t everything possible been said and done on this topic? And yet there seems to be a rush of this kind of book out (I’m thinking of Stieg Larsson too). I read once that the worse unemployment gets, the more negative portrayals of women abound, as resentment against working women raises its ugly head. But it may just be more primitive than that.

  5. shoreacres says:

    I was struck by your comment: I honestly can’t think of anyone I would actually recommend this to, but I am bothered by this because it’s the situations in the book – fictional situations – that cause me to feel this way, and not the writing or character development or plot.

    My initial response was, “But it’s writing, character development and plot that MAKE fiction live and evoke responses in us. No?” And then it occurred to me – maybe, in the end, the problem was nothing more than flat bad writing. Clubbing a reader over the head with a pile of nasty details may be warranted, or it may not – your author may have been engaged in reader abuse! 🙂

  6. Pete says:

    Yes, would also find that very disturbing and will avoid this one then. (Not that I’d ever heard of him being so far away.) And you are the second book-blogger who I’ve seen throw a book across the room in disgust. Is that a regular thing with readers I wonder? But I agree that after 800 pages he owed you a good ending at least!

  7. pvreader says:

    Well, if it bothered YOU, I am sure it would bother me, especially if you threw it across the room when you finished. Thank you for giving me a title that does not need to go in the TBR tome.

  8. Emily Barton says:

    And now I have to tell you, just like I’ve had to tell everyone else on wordpress, that pvreader is me.

  9. Courtney says:

    Stefanie – I have high hopes for the book I’m reading now – finally returned to Tana French for her second novel.
    Sarala – welcome- I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before! Looking forward to exploring your blog. I’ve read other books by Iles that do not have this theme running through them so I don’t think it is necessarily a fixation with him.
    Charlotte – the more you talk a bout your book the more excited I am to read it. It must have been a significant challenge to avoid all of those avenues in a crime novel – all the better for it I am sure!
    Litlove – I am so glad you mentioned that about STieg Larsson too – I am going to take some time before reading him, me thinks. And I don’t know why male authors so often go to these places – that’s a real mystery!
    Shoreacres – I love the concept of the author engaging in reading abuse. That is what it felt like certainly!
    Pete – LOL. I did throw the book but I’ve been stressed lately – maybe that has something to do with it?
    Emily – lol – I dig it. It sounds like a fun project! And, re: a book to not read? You’re welcome.

  10. Gala Garrett says:

    Interesting….this is one of my favorite books! I’ve recommended it to several people and each one has agreed they liked it as well…..no accounting for people’s reading taste…

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