Palace Council by Stephen L Carter

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Palace Council by Stephen L Carter

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw
Reviewed by Chris Bradshaw
Summary: An entertaining and pacey political thriller set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Vietnam and Watergate.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099527022

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An Oprah Tantalizing Beach Read and a Richard and Judy Summer Read 2009

There has been a spate of recently published books which have blended real life characters into fictional situations, most successfully David Peace's masterwork The Damned United. Peace's Brian Clough may have considered himself the most powerful man alive but in reality that tag belongs to the President of the United States of America rather than 'old big 'ed'. Which brings us neatly to Stephen L Carter's new novel Palace Council, a fictional political thriller featuring a host of real life characters, including the real life 'most powerful man on the planet' President Richard M Nixon.

After stumbling across the corpse of a Republican Party fundraiser at a high society party in Harlem in 1954, novelist Eddie Wesley is unwittingly drawn into a conspiracy which threatens revolution at the highest levels of government. On discovering that there is a connection between the murder and the mysterious disappearance of his brilliant, yet troubled sister, Wesley embarks on a 20 year journey to find both his young sibling and the reality behind the so called 'Palace Council' organisation. The deeper he digs, the more Eddie, with the assistance of his old sweetheart Aurelia, discovers the magnitude and ambition of the mysterious cabal. Nothing less than the toppling of the President will do, and only Eddie is in a position to find the truth.

In the era of anti war demonstrations, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate, Carter offers a rare and very interesting perspective from which to chronicle these tumultuous events, namely that of the African American upper class. Like his previous novels, The Emperor Of Ocean Park and New England White, Carter overlaps big ideas on race, politics and the upper echelons of American society with a plot that both educates and entertains.

Using factual events in a fictional setting can be fraught with danger but Carter handles the events sympathetically. His characters are believable with his female protagonists particularly well written. The long gone aristocratic Harlem, complete with gossiping 'czarinas' and male secret societies is nicely portrayed and provides a refreshing backdrop from which to examine the major events of the time. He successfully manages to intertwine real life characters such as J Edgar Hoover, Langston Hughes, Joe and Jack Kennedy and most importantly Richard Nixon without them sounding forced and inauthentic. By his own admission, Carter has played somewhat fast and loose with the historical record, amending dates, times and places in order to fit the narrative but that doesn't detract from the overall feeling of authenticity.

As a piece of history it may not be completely accurate but it does give a broad brush overview of some of the most extraordinary times in modern American history. Carter is excellent at documenting the competing visions of America, its role and its ambitions and setting them against an original and innovative backdrop. It is more successful as a page turning thriller, pacy enough and containing enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing while at the same time never feeling contrived.

In this election year, against a backdrop of an unpopular overseas war, the threat of terrorism at home and the prospect of a first black President, Palace Council feels especially prescient. It is a thriller in the best sense of the word and one that is well worth investigating.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy America, America by Ethan Canin.

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