Tuesday, January 27, 2009

“Palace Council”, by Stephen L. Carter (Jonathan Cape/Random House)


A slow-burning, decade spanning political thriller

Carter’s novels take place in the legal and political worlds, paying particular attention to the African-American elite, and the black upper class – a section of American society not often the focus of fiction, referring to African-American society in the United States, through all his novels, as “the darker nation”.

The main protagonist of Palace Council is Eddie Wesley, a young star of fiction in New York. In 1954, after a swanky engagement party, Wesley stumbles over (literally) the body of white lawyer, Republican party fundraiser, and adviser to President Eisenhower, Phil Castle. It becomes apparent that Castle was a member of what can only be described as an underground government of the United States. Wesley is drawn into a conspiracy aimed at changing or toppling the upper levels of the US government. Through diligent digging (aided by his former lover, Aurelia), Wesley is able to unravel the conspiracy (though it does take 20 years).

Unlike some political thriller writers, Carter draws on real events and real people to flesh out his novels. Richard Nixon, for example, makes an appearance, as do Langston Hughes, J Edgar Hoover and JFK. His attention to period detail is assured and interesting, adding another difference to the current crop of high-tech thrillers from the likes of Brad Thor, Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy (where has he gone, recently, anyway?). Despite this eye for detail, Carter does shift certain events to suit his plot (which he admits in the afterword). Regardless, his novel manages to convey an authenticity in its underlying descriptions and portrayal of the important struggles of the time – race, politics, Vietnam, and so forth.

While the historical setting might intrigue some, Carter’s prose are rather slow and methodical, making this a rather acquired taste – some might consider it measured and concise, while others will merely think it plods along. At times, it can feel like a struggle, trying to get to something interesting or exciting – especially given the author’s penchant for foreshadowing major events well in advance of them taking place. Within mere pages we are informed that Wesley will “help to topple a president”, but it takes a long time before it happens, or before it’s really intimated just how he might be involved in such an endeavour. This will infuriate some, but hook others.

While there is no doubt that this is a well written and plotted novel, its pace was a little too slow for me. Maybe this is just due to my taste in the aforementioned, faster-paced and more modern thriller writers. This is a rewarding read, but the reward at the end is diminished by the sometimes arduous journey taken to get there. I couldn’t help but wonder what this would have been like had it been written by someone with a faster writing and plotting style.

A rather wary recommendation.

No comments:

Post a Comment