Stephen L. Carter’s new novel, Palace Council, comes billed as a political thriller, but the most compelling mystery here has nothing to do with its botched suspense plot. How is it that the writer of The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White — bona fide page-turners set among the black upper class — has published a third novel that reads like a first draft? Why would this Yale Law professor and celebrated public intellectual construct a sub-Dan Brown cryptography thriller that panders to yahoo paranoia about New World Order high jinks? Only his agent knows for sure.
The hero, a writer named Eddie Wesley, goes Forrest Gumping through Cold War American history in a manner that gives Palace Council the feel of a PBS documentary on baby boomers. At the start of the book, Eddie lives in Harlem, enjoying some status as the son of a prominent Boston pastor. Even so, he’s not classy enough to earn the full approval of the uptown society matrons — ”’light-skinned Czarinas,’ Adam Clayton Powell had dubbed them” — whose gossip and maneuvering provide Palace Council with its most engaging moments. Though striving Eddie has scratched his way onto their party lists, the Czarinas still prefer to see elegant Aurelia Treene, his true love, affianced to Kevin Garland, a member of the neighborhood’s grandest family. Eddie throws a fit at Aurelia’s engagement party — Harry Belafonte fails to calm him down — and storms out into a park, where he trips over a corpse. The dead man is Philmont Castle, a white Wall Street lawyer whose life is tied to Eddie’s in many ways, forming an implausibly thick knot.
Castle, it turns out, was connected to a cabal called the Palace Council, as are most characters of wealth and power here, which lends the mystery an unfortunate Scooby-Doo simplicity. Garland belongs to the Council, and so does Perry Mount, Eddie’s childhood pal and Harlem’s ”Golden Boy,” as we’re told many, many times. The group might be underwriting Jewel Agony, a radical leftist outfit possibly led by Eddie’s younger sister, who vanishes 100 pages into the book. As if that weren’t enough, she’s just delivered a baby whose father might be Castle. Or maybe Mount. Or maybe a Harvard Law professor involved with both the Council and JFK’s 1960 campaign. Trying to solve the murder and find his sister, Eddie breezes from the Northeast Corridor to Indochina, with stops at J. Edgar Hoover’s library, ”the swankiest country club in the city” of Saigon, and half the campuses in the Ivy League.
This quest spans two decades, with Carter not so much spinning a yarn as rolling a newsreel: ”Langston Hughes proposed a toast to Eddie’s grand future”; ”Eddie had attended a conference at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport”; ”The restaurant was playing ‘Please Please Me’ by the Beatles, but this new-style music was not to Eddie’s taste”; etc. It’s a forced march of time, with bare sketches of sundry celebrities trotted out distractingly, while characters catch each other up on recent history: ”Remember the big scandal back in ’52? When Nixon was accused of having this secret fund to smear his opponents?”
Because Palace Council is structured so poorly — many chapters end with would-be ominous ”epiphanies” about the Council that readers will already understand — it does not qualify as entertainment. And because Carter writes like a lawyer, with perfect clarity and zero style, his prose is artless. So Palace Council is really neither a thriller nor a literary novel, but a genre unto itself: Talented Tenth porn, to use W.E.B. Du Bois’ term for the black elite. With locales from Sugar Hill to Capitol Hill, Oak Bluffs to Harvard Yard, it’s a 500-page catalog of what’s what among the Who’s Who — an intriguing milieu left in search of a proper story. C-