For the past six years, Natchez novelist Greg Iles has spent many hours in Concordia Parish researching his new novel, Natchez Burning, the first of three books that deals with race, family and evil men.
A few years ago, Jim Easterling of Vidalia introduced me to Greg over lunch in Natchez. At the time, Greg was completing Devil’s Punchbowl, but already researching what would become Natchez Burning.
During the previous two years, I had been looking into the unsolved Civil Rights-era cold case murders of a number of black men, as well as one white man. All were victims of the Ku Klux Klan, and most were suspected to have been killed by a renegade Klan terrorist cell known as the Silver Dollar Group.
For almost three decades, Frank Morris had operated a shoe repair shop in Ferriday that was patronized by a devoted black and white clientele. Ugly Klan-created rumors about Morris circulated throughout Ferriday after his murder. Morris was slain because as a man who happened to be black he had the courage to stand up to a notorious Concordia Parish sheriff’s deputy when he refused to pay for a pair of cowboy boots Morris had ordered for him.
In the years to follow the arson murder, Klan rumors had become truth in Ferriday. The stories were that Morris had been targeted because he flirted with white women and because he allowed black men and white women to hold sexual dalliances in the back room of his shop. All of these stories were lies.
There was also the case of Earl Hodges, a white man in Franklin County, Miss., who was murdered by the Klan in 1965. The Bunkley klavern of White Knights believed that Hodges, a former Klansman who had descended into alcoholism in the final years of his life, was going to inform on the Klan, particularly concerning the 1964 murders of two black teenagers, Henry Dee and Charles Moore.
While Hodges was a philanderer and alcoholic, he was not evil. In the days before his death he had talked with a preacher and a friend about the need to change his life and become a real father to his two boys. He was a man at a crossroads. When he decided to stand up to the evil men he had once called friends, he was savagely beaten, an event that led to a heart attack and his death.
Hodges’ nephew, Keith Hodges from Texas, said this murder “gutted” the Hodges’ family. Keith’s dad, Luther – one of Earl Hodges’ brothers – did all he could to try to identify the murderers. But Luther, like so many family members, died not knowing.
To this day not a soul has ever been arrested for the murders of Hodges, Morris and many other men and women, who were killed during the 1960s. If any of the killers are still alive – no matter their age or frailty – they remain fugitives from justice. Proverbs 28:17 says: “A man who is laden with the guilt of human blood shall be a fugitive until death; let no one support him.”
What links the Morris case to the Hodges’ murder and others is that members of the Silver Dollar Group were connected to the crimes. These were hateful, venomous men. Many dared to call themselves Christian warriors tasked with fighting communism and a federal government that made laws giving blacks equal rights.
Greg Iles soaked in all of these stories as I related them and shared evidence with him.
In 2009, he and his son joined me in Clayton, where Mary Manhein, an author and forensic anthropologist at LSU (known as The Bone Lady), was searching for the body of Joseph Edwards, a Vidalia motel porter who disappeared in 1964. Edwards had been the target of the Silver Dollar Group and their law enforcement allies.
Later Greg, who is now 54, joined me and another cold case reporter, Ben Greensburg of Boston, in a meeting with several black pastors at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Clayton. There we learned from these elderly men many stories of survival and triumph during those turbulent days.
Just last fall, when Greg was editing a galley of Natchez Burning, we drove to Woodville, Miss., and there looked at the scene on Poorhouse Road where Clifton Walker was ambushed 50 years ago this past February. Walker’s killers, like the others, lived out their lives free men until death and a judgment date with God plucked them from the killing fields they planted and tilled.
Natchez Burning is Greg’s 14th novel. Twelve of his books were New York Times bestsellers. He’s sold more than 10 million copies. His novels have been translated into 25 languages and sold in more than 35 countries around the globe.
He is a different man today than he was five years ago when Devil’s Punchbowl was published. He almost died in a car accident. His beloved father had passed away a few months earlier. The excitement of having a book back on the shelves is made sweeter by the fact that he is now engaged.
Greg is a smart man driven by the stories and characters that live with him everyday. I’ve never known anyone to research as thoroughly and work as hard as he does.
His favorite Southern author is Robert Penn Warren, who wrote All the King’s Men, the fictional version of the life of Louisiana’s Huey Long. In Natchez Burning and the other books of the trilogy, the backdrop is these local cold cases, which are populated with Greg’s own characters and events.
The reviews of this first book have been glowing. Natchez Burning will be released on April 29. Greg believes this book and the two to follow are the best work of his career.
He recently answered these questions:
— Why did you decide to make race and Civil Rights-era unsolved murder cases the backdrop for the trilogy?
ILES: I had always wanted to explore an interracial relationship between a white upper-middle class man and a black woman in the 1960’s. We know this type of relationship occurred. All you have to do to find proof is look around you. By necessity, most of these relationships were secret, but they were one of the few places where the white and black races set aside all public differences and came together. I’ve always thought it was an absurd irony that white supremacists who always screamed about racial purity saw nothing wrong with having sex and children with black women. They just didn’t want the same thing happening in the other direction.
— Why is the issue of race so difficult to talk about?
ILES: Obviously, dealing with race on this level is a very touchy issue. Race is still a festering wound in the American psyche, especially between black and white. On an individual level, people from the two races tend to get along very well. But in groups everyone’s defenses go up, and the only goal seems to be blaming the other side. White Americans are still reluctant to face the shattering effects of slavery on both black Americans and the country as a whole in the same way that we suppress the true horror of what we inflicted on the American Indian. This subject is simply too complex to deal with in a newspaper article.
— What was the primary inspiration for this trilogy and what surprised you most during your research?
ILES: Since I’m a thriller writer, I really needed to go beyond the scope of a single murder case and interracial relationship. What inspired me there was the work that you’ve done (Concordia Sentinel) on the unsolved murders committed by the Silver Dollar Group. The more I read of your articles, the harder it became for me to believe that such heinous murders had been committed in my own backyard. And for nearly 40 years, justice was denied these victims and their families.
I’ve always avoided using the KKK as villains in my novels, because fairly early on the Klan was crippled by FBI informants. But in the Silver Dollar Group, I found the inspiration for a truly terrifying group of dedicated killers.
What most surprised me while researching this trilogy is that most of the work to achieve justice in these cases is being done by white reporters, like yourself and Jerry Mitchell (Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, MS) , rather than African American reporters. I don’t know why that is, but I hope that it will change.
— You have faced adversity the last few years. Your father’s death. Your accident. A new agent and publisher. You’ve suffered, mourned, felt anguish and heartbreak. What’s it been like? How did these experiences help or hurt this project?
ILES: It’s true that I nearly died in a car accident in 2011 and lost part of my right leg, among other injuries. I also lost my father just prior to that, and he had a good deal to do with the writing of this book. He was a living example to me of how people should treat one another, regardless of race or any other consideration. The pain and loss of those two experiences forced me to confront the subject matter of this trilogy with a level of honesty I’ve probably never brought to a book before. The process has literally worn me out, but I’m still walking around and the reviews for the book, so far, speak for themselves.
It feels really good to be reading reviews and getting early reactions from fans and bookstore owners. I’m facing a very big tour in May, and that’s going to present some challenges given my new mobility situation. But I think I’m ready for it.
— What drives you to work so hard and with such purpose?
ILES: This is really the only way I know how to do it. I wish I knew how to write shorter novels. Taken together, the three volumes of this trilogy will be as long as eight or nine John Grisham novels. Maybe next time I can learn something from John since he probably outsells me ten to one.
— What is the one thing you hope people learn from this trilogy?
ILES: I hope people outside the South come to understand that the Deep South is a very complex place, but not necessarily more racist than any other part of the country. Racism in the South simply tended to be more open, rather than hidden and hypocritical.
— What are you most proud of concerning Natchez Burning?
ILES: BookPage magazine wrote that “this is William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation.” I like that characterization of this novel. I’m also glad to see that HBO series like, True Detective, are coming around to where my novels about the South have always been.