the guardian Fri 15 August 2008
Newspaper coverage of the 2008 American election has been dominated by the rise of Barack Obama, but in the political literature published this summer the recurrent figure is, perhaps surprisingly, Richard M Nixon. The only American leader to have resigned is being remembered in non-fiction - Rick Perlstein's Nixonland - and fiction: invented characters interact with Tricky Dick in Ethan Canin's recent novel America America and, now, the new thriller by Stephen L Carter.
A phrase from Perlstein's subtitle - The Fracturing of America - explains the reason for this sudden emphasis: these writers indict Nixon for the division of American politics into mutually uncomprehending tribes of left and right, and for the use of ruthless tactics in the conduct of campaigns and elections that saw off Al Gore and John Kerry, and may yet keep a white man in the White House for another four years.
Carter is a law professor at Yale and his novels (the previous two were The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White) take place in the overlap between the legal and political worlds, with particular attention to the African-American elite. His special subject is the black upper class, a section of American society generally ignored, for understandable reasons, by authors charting the poverty and racism that have been the more general experience of what Carter, through all his books, calls "the darker nation".
Palace Council attributes this striking phrase to Eddie Wesley, a fictional young literary star whom the book places in the group of Negro (as the word then was) authors who gathered around Langston Hughes in the 1940s and 1950s. Hughes appears in the novel, as does Nixon, the span of the narrative stretching from his election to the vice-presidency in 1952, to President Ford's pardon for his disgraced predecessor in September 1974.
In the time of Vice-President Nixon, after a smart party in Harlem to celebrate the engagement between the children of two members of the Negro "aristocracy", Wesley stumbles upon the dead body of a white lawyer, Phil Castle, a big Republican party fundraiser and adviser to President Eisenhower. Wesley is admitted to these circles both through literary success and through his connection via marriage to the Garlands, the first family of the darker nation, later generations of which feature in Carter's earlier novels.
The dead man in Harlem is holding a cross in his hand and is soon established to have been part of a cabal that may be the underground government of America. These hints of a religious conspiracy are another example of the way in which almost all crime and thriller fiction now feels obliged to flutter its eyelids hopefully at the Da Vinci Code readership. The murdered lawyer, it turns out, has written a testament, a kind of alternative American constitution, which has mysteriously disappeared.
But whereas Dan Brown used secrets and codes to dramatise fatuous impossibilities, Carter employs conspiratorial and paranoid plotting to highlight the reality of American political division: the Vietnam war, racial conflict and the rise of underground revolutionaries such as the Weathermen are all cleverly incorporated into the struggle between two competing visions of America which, as always in Carter's fiction, can not be neatly categorised as white and black.
In another blessed distinction from Brown, Carter's prose is slow and methodical, full of well-researched detail such as the times and places where a black American could hope to be picked up by a cab-driver in the New York of the 1950s and 1960s. He is skilled at injecting pace and tension through canny use of foreshadowing: we know within a few pages that Eddie Wesley will ultimately "help to topple a president", while another character is introduced with the news that "his murder was still 30 months away".
Even by the lax standards of the genre of faction, Palace Council has a slippery attitude to history: as the writer cheerfully confesses in an afterword, quite important events - the trial of the physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, and even Ford's pardon of Nixon - are nudged across the calendar to suit the story. This book, then, should not be read by dead-eyed pedants, but others will enjoy a historical thriller that efficiently delivers both thrills and history, especially in the still under-developed chronicles of black America.
· Mark Lawson's Enough is Enough is published by Picador.