Sunday, August 23, 2009

Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

Palace Council (Vintage Contemporaries)
This wonderful novel is Stephen L. Carter’s third thriller. It is a captivating mystery story that I absolutely loved, which has enough conspiracies on all sides to, among other things, reanimate J. Edgar Hoover without putting a foot wrong. Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter is a fictional account, mixed in with a lot of historical facts, of race relations and national politics from before JFK to the end of the Nixon era. Of course, this time period encompasses the Vietnam War, and we have occasion to drop in on the Southeast Asian conflict for some object lessons. The author describes roles played by fictional and real power brokers, by fictional and real African American influences and by, again, both fictional and real African American experiences in shaping the country's political landscapes and affecting the outcomes of elections, political movements and individual lives.

Through the eyes of its many major and minor characters, Palace Council both embraces and confronts student and Afro-centrist extremism. The story encompasses many layers of scheming on all sides of the political spectrum, and within or between families, and it explores links and breaks between African American characters and conservative, centrist and liberal representatives of the Caucasian majority.

The author successfully turns history that we think we know into a thriller by the addition of fictional elements that will show many of us a part of America that we have little knowledge of (no matter what our family or racial backgrounds may be). A lot of ground is covered, from personal and family loyalty and Civil Rights to the bizarre personality of Richard M. Nixon. This is the stuff of great conflicts!

As part of a thread that connects murder with history, Palace Council offers a fascinating picture of Harlem as it undergoes an unfortunate though hardly unique dismantling, starting out as the major center of African American culture and power, and ending up as a broken down neighborhood populated by the ghosts of greatness past and those who were left behind when most of the educated and wealthy headed for the suburbs (or more attractive waterfront property). That's not to say that no great minds remain in Harlem, they are undoubtedly born frequently, but we watch as the once stratified and often regal neighborhoods in Harlem cease being magnets or oases for intellectual and artistic development in African American culture, at least from perspectives that lean toward the conservative definition of what culture is... so, ignoring, say, Hip-Hop, though credit for that really goes to The Bronx, I guess; see Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

Along the way, we enjoy excellent, gripping writing, clever plots and subplots, and a cast of characters that is simply fascinating. Adding to the pleasure, threads of the plot link Palace Council to Carter's first two novels:

New England White and The Emperor of Ocean Park.

Both of these earlier novels are also a pleasure to read. New England White, for example, which I already reviewed briefly, is an outstanding thriller that manages to present us with convincing murder mysteries and behavioral mysteries while it addresses race relations and racial politics at local (village), elite academic and national levels.

I can't say that the novel Palace Council is perfect, but it is darned close, and my quibbles aren't worth mentioning: it is an epic "must read" that will thrill, delight, sadden, and involve the reader as all great stories do.

James K. Bashkin, Nearlynothingbutnovels, Creative Commons License

Note that an early, draft version of this book review appears on the Barnes & Noble Website.

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