1.5 stars rounded up. It was, in parts, "okay".
First and foremost, thank FUCK that is over. I started reading this on April 23 and I am just now, today, June 5, finished reading it. Considering I finished the other books in ten days or less, I gotta say my pace here is telling.
This book is a padded mess of inconsequential bullshit, and I would be the worst kind of fanboy if I ignored the hundreds of pages of filler here and five-starred this train wreck of a novel. But I think the WHY of the matter is the most interesting subject here, so let's discuss why I feel that Greg Iles stuffed this book to bursting with filler in order to create (or force) some kind of legacy.
Many years ago (2011, I believe), Greg Iles was in a car accident in which he almost died. He lost a leg and had a long recovery ahead of him. Before the accident, he'd written almost to completion a book called Unwritten Laws, which can still be found on Goodreads. The novel looked to be a direct follow-up of Iles's novel The Devil's Punchbowl because he mentions at the end of PUNCHBOWL that Cage's story will continue in 2011. Great. Wonderful.
Unfortunately for Iles fans, we will never get to read Unwritten Laws.
So what the fuck happened to Unwritten Laws? My theory is this: Greg Iles, fresh off almost dying, decided to chop the book up into three novels and pad them with some insane JFK subplot. If you were to strip the JFK nonsense from Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree you'd have a very tight, albeit lengthy literary thriller. I can only imagine that Mississippi Blood will lend further evidence to my theory, should I ever choose to read it. The JFK stuff is nothing but expositional dumps that are a fucking BORE to read. Had I not read and loved the previous four books in this series, I would have tossed this pile of overstuffed nothing out the window.
But why would Iles do such a thing? Because near-death experiences make people do weird shit. Look at Stephen King. After getting ran over in 1999, and the long recovery he suffered, we got the utterly garbage Dreamcatcher. But we also got the final three Dark Tower books. Nothing lights a fire under your ass like the realization your ass won't be around forever. So Iles came back to Unwritten Laws, butchered it, and added a bunch of JFK conspiracy theory nonsense in order to create, in his words, his "magnum opus".
Spoiler alert: It's never a good idea for an author to go into a project expecting it to be the greatest achievement of their career. I don't care how good you are, it never works out well. You end up coming off as a try-hard.
And Greg Iles tried too hard. This storyline did not need the JFK subplot. There is some terrific shit in this book, but it's all overshadowed by Greg Iles's attempts to create a literary legacy. You can pinpoint every scene that is tacked on because they feel exactly like that--tacked on. Every scene that doesn't mention JFK is superbly written, while every chapter that mentions the assassination feels like someone else wrote them. Someone drastically less talented than Iles has proved himself to be with previous books. The plot becomes so absurd that even the characters start commenting on it. Toward the end of the novel, Penn Cage says "Unbelievable" in response to another asinine and obviously forced plot twist. This is because, deep down, Iles knew how badly he was fucking up, but he wanted so much for it to work. So much, in fact, that the desperation drips from the page. "Please, believe this, dear reader! PLEASE!"
Iles drones on and on trying to make his theory plausible, but it never takes hold. By the end of the book, I was defeated and dejected. I'm seriously contemplating not reading the final book. I'm so goddamned disappointed. Because there is a good story in here. Somewhere.
FInally, we lose some cherished fan favorites, but their passing is tainted by the thriller-filler bullshit of the JFK subplot. I wasn't remotely affected by their passing, even though the scenes were well written. I remember how hard I took a major character's death in The Quiet Game and I can't help but feel like Iles failed the characters in this book. They deserved so much better than to be bookended by an insane subplot and cheesy thriller elements.
Why, man? Why?
Sometimes, authors are their own worst enemy. That's why.
In summation: No doubt the weakest book in the series, and definitely the worst Greg Iles book I've read. Nowhere near his usually high quality. A perfect example of an artist wanting too badly to be taken seriously when they were already fine the way they were. Super disappointed and unsure if I'll carry on to complete the series.
Final Judgment: NOTICE ME, SENPAI!