The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter hit the shelves with guns blazing over a decade ago, spurred by a multi-million-dollar book deal and rave reviews. His debut fiction novel, it stood out from the pack in that it’s written around the most highly educated of black society’s upper echelon and, more so, because it was written by a member of that very caste rather than by an outsider trying to immolate the nuances, prejudices, experiences and insights that could only be accurately and convincingly portrayed by one of their own. (Think Jhumpa Lahiri and Hanif Kureishi—this too can be considered a cultural exposé, imbedded within a brilliant thrill ride, in the same vein.) The demographic that Carter writes around really is a lesser-known, lesser-publicized world of its own that necessitates candid unmasking by a member of the tribe itself.
This novel was a combination of mystery and conspiracy thriller, complete with antagonists lurking in the dark, the hint of extramarital affairs, academic and political betrayal and the scent of conspiracy in the air. Was murder involved or natural death? Was The Judge wrongfully accused and disgraced or was he secretly deserving of his fate, the baddest of all bad guys behind closed political doors? This one also featured eloquently delivered, thoughtful prose that had the definite lilt of a law professor’s seriousness without being staid. Indeed, it was emotive where it needed to be while still offering those sharp references to societal issues—I am old enough to remember when few black women of her age wore their hair any other way, but nationalism turned out to be less an ideology than a fad being one of my personal favorites and certainly representative of his tone—that are jolting and appreciated for their wit, insight and stunning logical clarity.
Chess was at the center of this novel—a true Chess Master’s feast. It enveloped the plotline with an inventory of references that were brilliantly tied into the mystery and intrigue of the work, rather than simply being intellectual props for show. Carter even wove these allusions into his social commentary in way that was graceful and not ostentatious, though some might consider it mildly pretentious—and why not? He’s writing with a hint of pretentiousness that makes his voice his own. I appreciated that voice and found his method, his cadence of tone, to be thrilling in a new way. I love a great thriller with heart-quickening twists and turns as much as the next thriller junkie, but an author who can write in this genre while evoking serious social deliberation and eloquence of finesse? It’s a feat often tried but seldom achieved with greatness, and I was caught off guard by the magnitude of his writing, by the eloquence of innuendos and by the fact that he managed to uncover this “hidden” world to the masses while still making it feel like a secret. In fact, I’d venture to say that a reader who could follow his intention, and who appreciates a view into the inner workings of dirty American politics, would feel that they’d been let in on a secret. And who doesn’t love to be let in on a secret?
While this novel is easily one of my all-time favorites for the plotline that kept me guessing and the delivery that made me a fan, it isn’t without its own Achilles’ heel. The Emperor could definitely have stood up to a haircut in some places—snip a little here, shave a little there. While the word count itself was certainly not to be considered massive comparative to some, the style of writing and tendency towards verboseness of narrative at times made the novel feel more massive than it was, and the task of reading through the backstory of every minor character could be tedious. However, he is a master with creating characters; their voices were genuine and all their own, from hoity-toity “Lady Bugs” to self-entitled Trump-sound-alikes. With that in mind, yes, his editor definitely should have chopped it down a bit just to streamline this work, however would this then have been the cozy thriller that it was had they done so? I set aside the temptation towards docking this one a half star for the same reason that I did so with my last Stephen King review, because there’s no need to be petty. Five stars. *****