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Book: Greg Iles' new novel is intense

“The Devil’s Punchbowl,” by Greg Iles. Scribner. 480 pp. $26.95.
By Jerry Harkavy
Associated Press
Riverboat casino manager Jonathan Sands has a refined English accent that reverts to a coarse, working-class Irish manner of speech in situations where he reveals his true, villainous nature.
Perhaps even more menacing is the white, mastiff-like dog from Pakistan that often stands at his side: a fierce Bully Kutta with a huge head, cropped ears, wrinkled skin and a disposition that makes Stephen King’s Cujo seem as docile as Snoopy.
In his 13th novel, Greg Iles returns to his hometown of Natchez, Miss., where former Houston prosecutor and novelist Penn Cage, who appeared in two of Iles’ earlier thrillers, is mayor of a community that places a big bet on casino gambling as a way to energize the local economy.
Cage is drawn into the vortex when childhood friend Tim Jessup, a former druggie who works as a blackjack dealer aboard the Magnolia Queen, comes to him with allegations that Sands is luring high rollers such as NFL stars, rap artists and Chinese billionaires to the casino by offering access to dog fighting and kinky sex.
Jessup is tortured and murdered on the way to a second late-night meeting with Cage that was to take place in a cemetery above the bluff that overlooks the Mississippi where the Magnolia Queen is moored.
The suspense builds as Sands and his henchman, Seamus Quinn, try to recover evidence they believe Jessup has passed on to Cage. After Cage, a widower with an 11-year-old daughter, gets threats to those he holds dear, he enlists a courageous and resourceful backup team. A superannuated former Texas Ranger responds to the call, as does a ponytailed member of a Blackwater-type security force who hightails it home from Afghanistan.
Journalist Caitlin Masters, Cage’s former lover, has returned to Natchez just in time to become a target of Sands and Quinn. After she’s kidnapped, Cage and his helpers race to find and rescue her from her sadistic captors.
Efforts to bring the killers to justice are complicated by a web of corruption involving local cops and a pact that links Sands to a high-powered Justice Department lawyer who’s protecting him in return for his participation in a sting aimed at snaring a criminal mastermind from China.
Some readers may be troubled by the sexual abuse and torture, much of it carried out in a room deep in the bowels of the ship that’s called the Devil’s Punchbowl. Accounts of dog fighting are equally vivid.
Iles fans, accustomed to his deft writing and strong plotting with many twists and turns, will find plenty of suspense and action in this page-turner that captures the atmosphere of the South. From the kudzu and Spanish moss of the cemetery to the lake that’s lined with cypress trees and teeming with hungry, red-eyed alligators, the author lards his fast-paced story with an authentic sense of place.

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