Tour of Natchez features sites that inspired Greg Iles’ books

The Dunleith Historic Inn is a National Historic Landmark that some people believe is haunted. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo

The Dunleith Historic Inn is a National Historic Landmark that some people believe is haunted. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo

I took one look at Edelweiss, a gingerbread-trimmed German chalet built atop the bluff in downtown Natchez, Miss., in 1883, and a melancholy swept over me like an unexpected draft. The average passerby wouldn’t understand my gloominess. After all, it’s a cheerful sort of house that looks as though it were plucked from a fairy tale, but I knew one owner whose fairy tale turned into a nightmare.

Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez and a successful writer, renovated the house as a wedding present for his fiancée Caitlin, but the curious reporter was brutally murdered when she got too close to uncovering the truth about decades-old Ku Klux Klan crimes, leaving a hole in Penn’s soul and his young daughter motherless once more.

I sighed and scrambled back into the van emblazoned with the words "Downtown Karla Brown," a Natchez company that conducts the Greg Iles Trilogy Tour. Iles, a New York Times best-selling author, lives in Natchez and is the real owner of Edelweiss.

Penn and Caitlin are fictional characters in his “Natchez Burning” trilogy, thrillers loosely based on actual civil rights era crimes.

Natchez is a charming river city with historic homes and churches on practically every corner, but Iles exposes the city’s dark underbelly, making it seem sinister and foreboding.

Iles’ stories may be fiction, but the setting for them is real, and this tour takes readers to Natchez landmarks in his books.

After reading the gripping Southern saga that begins with “Natchez Burning,” segues to “The Bone Tree,” and concludes with the “Mississippi Blood” released last year, I was so caught up in the macabre tale that, for me, Penn’s sense of loss was palpable at Edelweiss, a stage for happy family moments that would never be.

The Turning Angel is the name of a monument at the Natchez City Cemetery and also the name of a book Iles wrote in 2005. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo

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Fans of Southern literature have a long history of making pilgrimages to the stomping grounds of their favorite scribes — think the homes of Flannery O'Connor in Milledgeville or William Faulkner's in Oxford, Miss. The difference here is that Iles is alive and well, so you can't roam through his house admiring the desk where all that creativity found its way onto the page or think profound thoughts at his grave. But you can get acquainted with the area that inspired his work.

The next stop on our tour was the Natchez City Cemetery.

This historic burial ground is the ideal setting for the shocking and the morbid, and Iles uses it to its full literary potential in “Turning Angel,” his 2005 novel that preceded the trilogy. It seeks to unravel the case of a murdered high school girl who, to Penn’s dismay, was having an affair with one of his friends, a married man more than twice her age who quickly becomes a murder suspect.

The title comes from a graceful monument placed in the cemetery more than a century ago to commemorate employees killed in an explosion at the Natchez Drug Company. Locals say when they drive past the eternally sorrowful angel at night, she seems to turn and watch them pass.

Other highlights of the tour include the shuttered Eola Hotel, a downtown icon since the 1920s, and the Dunleith Historic Inn, a National Historic Landmark. A notable feature of the 1856 Greek Revival mansion is its expansive porches encased in 26 white columns that are practically the size of sequoias. Inn guests often “sit a spell” in one of the inviting rocking chairs to catch an evening breeze.

Natchez claims to have more antebellum homes than anywhere else in the country, and Dunleith is not only one of the grandest, but it is one of the few where visitors are welcome to (gently) touch the furniture and spend the night in a majestic antique bed.

According to legend, the ghost of a beautiful young woman sometimes entertains guests at sunset by playing dulcet tunes on her harp.

The inn’s Castle restaurant serves an upscale version of the modern Southern classic chicken and waffles featuring quail.

Haney’s Big House is an event space built to honor Will Haney, the late African-American owner of a popular juke joint by the same name that burned in the 1960s. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo

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Some of the action in Iles’ books takes place in Ferriday, La., so our tour crossed the state line and took a look around the tiny, mostly African-American community.

Haney’s Big House gets a mention in “Natchez Burning.” In 1966, the juke joint owned by Will Haney, an African-American businessman, is destroyed by a fire blamed on faulty wiring in an ice machine, although some suspect a more sinister cause.

To honor the late Haney and his legendary club, an eponymous event space was built a few blocks from the original site. Signage chronicles the club’s history and the black entertainers that played there in the 1940s and ‘50s as they made their way along the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of performance venues that were safe for blacks to play during the Jim Crow era. Ray Charles, B.B. King and Fats Domino were just a few that rocked the house, honing their chops at Haney’s before they made it big.

Rocker Jerry Lee Lewis grew up in Ferriday, and when he was young, he would listen at the back door, hoping to emulate some of what he heard when he got home.

In “Natchez Burning,” the fictional Albert Norris is an African-American music store owner whose business is burned down in the 1960s by a renegade off-shoot of the Klan known as the Double Eagles because he is suspected of protecting a black teenager secretly dating a white girl.

Like much of Iles’ work, the story is based on real events. Frank Morris was an African-American shoe shop owner in Ferriday whose business was burned down by white men in 1964 following a false rumor he had flirted with a white woman. Morris was inside at the time and died from his burns a few days later.

This literary sojourn through Iles’ magnum opus unearths some grim realities and horrifying incidents from a bygone era, and I immersed myself in them for a couple of hours. But afterwards, I buried the past and opened my eyes to present day Natchez, a picturesque spot on the Mississippi River known for stunning antebellum architecture, Southern cuisine and live music venues.


IF YOU GO

Greg Iles Book Tours.  Downtown Karla Brown Tours. Greg Iles Book Tour I lasts two hours and visits sites in the first Penn Cage series. $45. Greg Iles Book Tour II lasts three hours and focuses on the Natchez Burning Trilogy, but may also include landmarks mentioned in his earlier novels. $50. 406 Franklin St., Natchez, Miss., 907-540-0001, www.downtownkarlabrown.com

Where to Stay

Dunleith Historic Inn. Rates $150-$300. 84 Homochitto St., Natchez, Miss., 601-446-8500, www.dunleith.com

Where to Eat

Fat Mama's Tamales. Serving tamales, chili and taco salads. 303 S. Canal St., Natchez, Miss., 601-442 4548, www.fatmamastamales.com

Tourist Information

Visit Natchez. 640 S. Canal St., Natchez, Miss. 800-647-6724, www.visitnatchez.org