Palace Council

Like all ambitious conspiracy theorists, Stephen L. Carter is determined to graft his tale of dark secrets to the grand events of history. And the period over which Palace Council unfolds — from the early 1950s until the Watergate scandal’s dingy twilight — provides rich material for the conspiracy-minded. Carter’s third capacious thriller offers a protagonist who promises to make the most of this territory: Eddie Wesley, a young black writer of upright parentage who arrives in Harlem in 1954. Over the next 20 years he makes his reputation covering many of the era’s landmark events for big-name magazines and weaving its turbulent social currents into several novels. Much like the Johnny-on-the-spot devil in that Rolling Stones song, it’s the nature of Eddie’s game to turn up wherever something big is afoot.

He’s approached by real-life Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and pressured by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to become a snitch. He’s at the Cape Cod meeting in 1959 where John F. Kennedy persuades key supporters that he can win the presidency, and Eddie briefly writes speeches for Kennedy after the election. He exposes a CIA program of torture and murder in war-torn Vietnam and attends the final, chaotic convention of the SDS in Chicago in 1969. He’s at Richard Nixon’s side at Camp David after two key aides resign. He pals around with Langston Hughes and has an audience with Joseph Kennedy. In short, Eddie is a man of his times, many times over.

And then there’s the conspiracy: In the book’s opening pages, Eddie discovers a corpse. A couple of years later, his beloved sister Junie, a Harvard-educated radical, disappears on a road trip. As he pursues his youthful love, Aurelia, in and out of her marriage to another man, the two of them struggle to unravel a plot that connects his missing sister and the dead body, as well as several other mysterious deaths, to a secret organization composed of both black and white powerbrokers who have plans of their own about how they’ll shape the times as they are a-changin’.

Palace Council is a Carter mystery, and so all of this isn’t so unwieldy as it sounds. Carter excels at complexity. A Yale law professor who turned his hand to fiction several years ago, his popular novels The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White attracted readers fascinated by tales of upper-class, inner-circle blacks. He has the eye of a social critic, and offers entrée to a world, with its own protocols and pitfalls, that isn’t widely known or understood. (Readers of his previous novels will encounter those characters? forebears or childhood selves here.)

In Eddie, Carter has created a useful proxy, an observer caught up in history as it unfolds and yet apart from it. Eddie’s status as a writer affords him the social and political fluidity to turn his lens wherever Carter wants to look, and sometimes what comes into focus feels telling and true. (In one episode, Eddie pens a piece for The Nation characterizing Nixon as “all-American” because his win-at-all-costs scheming embodies the true national ethos, and finds himself reviled by those on the right, who get his point with “crystal clarity,” as well as by leftists who misinterpret him as a conservative). More often, though, Carter isn’t able to wring much more from the common property of history than the already familiar: Hoover is unpleasant and looks like a bulldog, JFK wants to do the right thing, Nixon is underhanded but vulnerable.

The book opens on the Harlem salon society of the late ’50s and early ’60s (which Carter shifted forward in time by at least a decade), where matrons dubbed “the Czarinas” ran the show, and those who got off the A train were judged according to their stops — the low-rent Valley dwellers debarking at 125th Street, the residents of exclusive Sugar Hill at 145th or 155th. It’s fascinating real estate, but it disappears quickly from view and nothing as vivid takes its place. Eddie is shuttled from one historic overlook to the next, and neither he nor Carter has the chance to take full stock of where he is.

Occasionally big events are filtered convincingly through the eyes of Carter’s characters, as when Aurelia attends a gathering to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon: “Everybody wanted to be cool and cynical, even to mumble about how the money that went into Project Apollo could have been better spent feeding the hungry, but nobody wanted to miss it.” Unfortunately, the florid and unimaginative language into which Carter can lapse sounds even worse when applied to public figures. The night Eddie meets Nixon at Camp David, for instance, “was achingly cold, but the cauldron of boiling emotion that constituted Nixon, like the similar simmer deep inside Eddie, generated all the warmth he needed.” Overheated prose, indeed.

It is Eddie’s obsession with finding his sister, and his thwarted-but-never-dead romance with Aurelia, that keeps us reading. But as the plot threads through protests, presidencies, and war, it loses its way so many times that, by the end, the resolution has lost much of its urgency, and the obscure machinations of the villain never take hold of our imagination the way they’re meant to. History has gotten in the way. Carter’s note at the end of the book ticks off any number of ways that he had to “fuss” with real events to make them conform to his narrative. That’s the trouble with grand conspiracies.