Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

Hardcover, 512 pages
Published July 8th 2008 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2008)

In the summer of 1952, twenty prominent men gather at a secret meeting on Martha’s Vineyard and devise a plot to manipulate the President of the United States. Soon after, the body of one of these men is found by Eddie Wesley, Harlem’s rising literary star. When Eddie’s younger sister mysteriously disappears, Eddie and the woman he loves, Aurelia Treene, are pulled into what becomes a twenty-year search for the truth. As Eddie and Aurelia uncover layer upon layer of intrigue, their odyssey takes them from the wealthy drawing rooms of New York through the shady corners of radical politics, all the way to the Oval Office.

Stephen Carter’s novel is as complex as it is suspenseful, and with his unique ability to turn stereotypes inside out, Palace Council is certain to enthrall readers to the very last page.

Whew, this book was a lot! It was a murder mystery and whodunit, an exploration of 20 of the most tumultuous years in American 20th century history and a political thriller, not to mention a foray into Harlem’s Golden Age of influential African Americans with the money and connections most never knew existed for them in those days. There was a lot crammed within these 500+ pages, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

Stephen L. Carter is my favorite author for his ability to weave historical truth with fiction and for his portrayal of the African American community–both modern-day and historically–so accurate in its incisiveness and so taunt in his analysis of it. I’ve never encountered an author before or since who had such an accurate, compelling and thought-provoking voice about the upper echelons of black culture–the very embodiment of W.E.B. Dubois’ Talented Tenth–the subculture within a culture that so few even know exists with its own rich history, mores and societal rules. Carter displayed all of this and more within the pages of Palace Council, and that I lapped up with the enthusiasm you’d expect from one who’d gone too long without such substance.

I’ve seen Carter’s work described as being Dan Brown-like, and it’s true–they do share the element of mysteries solved through obscure literary references and the thrill of running from killers hellbent on snatching the clues the protagonist has found for themselves. But may I step in here and say that Stephen L. Carter is more wily than Dan Brown, his plots more complex in so many ways? Carter’s novels center around both the present and past of affluent African American culture, which allows his reader a basis on which to start from in every read and the thrill of seeing unexpected recurrences of previous characters in diverse stages of their lives. For example, The Emperor of Ocean Parkrevolves around the Garland family who also play a prominent part in Palace Council, set 50 years before the events in Emperor even happened. Readers who love to follow characters over the spans of their lives–who don’t just want to see them one and done in one novel–will love this as I do. This is Carter’s angle (pun intended for those who’ve read this book), rather than the Bond-like supporting female characters of Brown’s novels.

Stephen L. Carter’s novels are always decadent in setting, but Palace Council took the cake. Sweeping from Harlem to Washington D.C. to Saigon and back again, it’s the details here that filled so many pages of this novel. There are so many minute and intricate details here that make their world more solid and complete–from street names in Hong Kong to delicious elements of historic events of the 50s, 60s and 70s–that this one novel could easily be made into a multi-season TV series–and should! Yet, in the setting of one book, it was a lot to take in at once.

If it’s possible for one to drown in literary details, I must say I certainly struggled to stay afloat at times, keeping characters and their bloodlines straight amidst the historical events surrounding them–from Kent State, to the Tet Offensive, to JFK’s assassination and beyond. At times the narrative moved at too slow a pace, filled with historical filler and unnecessary scenes, both, which slowed the plot (in true literary form) rather than urging it forward. While these historical landmarks (the dates sometimes toyed with for the benefit of the characters at Carter’s admission) helped to center the players within these pages and paint a complete picture of the age they lived in, there were also so many times where historic events seemed just dumped in there. (I hesitate to say haphazardly because I doubt Carter does anything “haphazard” ever.) And, I’ll admit, the plot was sometimes muddled and muddied by Carter’s abundance of clever asides and descriptive tags galore. But Carter’s novels reside in the company between Dan Brown’s thrillers steeped in literary puzzles and Salman Rushdie’s erudition. And for that, he warrants all the praise he has garnered, and remains my favorite author to date. Palace Council earned a solid 4 stars sullied only by the editor’s inability to rein this one in a little more. (Honestly, a good 75 pages at least could have been chopped.) ****

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Stephen L. Carter Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale where he has taught since 1982. He has published seven critically acclaimed nonfiction books on topics ranging from affirmative action to religion and politics. His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), was an immediate national best seller. His latest novel is New England White (Knopf, 2007). A recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Fiction, he lives near New Haven, Connecticut.


The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter


Paperback, 672 pages
Published May 27th 2003 by Vintage (first published 2002)

 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. *****