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State Of Terror, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny (St. Martin’s, 495 pages)
My bar for celebrity mysteries is extremely low. Give me a passable plot and dress it with some snippets of good gossip and I’ll read past the cliched characters and trite dialog. I should mention here that former U.S. president Bill Clinton and James Patterson did not make that bar and so I approached Hillary Clinton’s opus with some trepidation. I should have known better. One of the smartest people in the world wouldn’t pair with a writer with no talent: Louise Penny is the perfect choice for a woman with tales to tell and axes to grind. So we get a solid plot and solid writing in State of Terror.
We have to have a plot line that means the End Of The World As We Know It and, boy, do Clinton and Penny give us a doozy. A rogue group sets off bombs in London, Paris and Frankfurt – it’s a warning of what is to come. In Washington, there’s a new administration following the catastrophic term of ex-president Eric Dunn. Dunn, described by a Russian leader as “a useful idiot,” lurks in the wings, planning a return to the White House. Newly appointed Secretary of State Ellen Adams is a political neophyte. Twice widowed, she ran a media empire and did not support the current President. So, why did he offer her this political plum of a job?
The plum quickly turns to poison as Adams faces crisis after crisis. It’s here that Clinton’s extensive experience comes into play. We are in the room where decisions get made and power is confronted. This isn’t a hot action thriller because the plot moves on strategic travel, smart talk and deciphering movements and tiny clues. There is, of necessity, a lot of talk but it all works because we get insight into how world leaders work with and against each other. We also get generous doses of old-fashioned misogyny and the tendency to write off middle-aged women who wear Spanx and don’t fear appearing in public without Botox.
One sees Penny’s fine hand all over this book. The characters are well developed and intrinsically interesting and we care about what happens to them. Her talent for setting the reader in place keeps dizzying movement from one continent to another manageable. A plot with a hundred moving parts whipping from the mountains of Afghanistan to the Oval Office never loses sight of the fact that everything has to lead to a logical conclusion. We know that Ellen will save the world but what keeps us reading is that we care about her and hers. Her charming little secret code, based on a grammar game that any old English teacher would love, is just one of many touches that endeared Ellen to me. Penny even lets Dunn the Dumb off the hook. He’s not evil, just stupid and selfish, like someone else we might know.
The end, when it comes, is a neck snapper. We have a countdown, a crash, a confrontation and three different agents of evil all colliding in the White House. Do not, above all, read the end of this one first and do save it for a weekend when you don’t have to stop reading.
Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, Canada, 318 pages)
I read this novel in one 12-hour gulp. I literally couldn’t put it down and it’s convinced me that Colson Whitehead can do anything. After the brilliance of The Underground Railroad, where he transformed the slave narrative, and the heart-rending veracity of The Nickel Boys, Harlem Shuffle updates a time and place that exploded in the early civil rights movement. Whitehead does it as a perfectly realized and stunningly written noir in the tradition of the superb novelist Chester Himes whose tales of Harlem crime, featuring police officers Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, have remained, for too long, out of print.
The protagonist here is Ray Carney, a struggling entrepreneur whose furniture store is barely breaking even, which leads to a part-time trade in goods of unknown origin. His wife’s family regard him as a loser. They live on Striver’s Row and belong to an exclusive club for people who can pass the Paper Bag Test. His closest relative is his cousin Freddie, a feckless fool whose every appearance means trouble. When Freddie decides to rob the Hotel Theresa, Harlem’s richest and most celebrated spot, Cary knows that the plot will fail and he wants no part of it. But Freddie’s mouth leads to lies and when the heist goes bad, trouble comes to Ray. Soon, he’s in the crosshairs of both the police and local criminals, and his small safe world is jeopardized.
Whitehead has put so much into the slim plot line that it’s impossible to recap. Just know that everything leads up to the Harlem riots that opened many people’s eyes to the results of a hundred years of slavery followed by a hundred years of racial discrimination. It also led desperate Black people to torch and vandalize Black businesses like, Ray’s, along with the white businesses that exploited them.
All this happens in a tightly constructed book without an extraneous sentence. Whitehead’s dialogue snaps and moves like lightning, relying on local slang and fast patter, which is reminiscent of Himes’s novels from the 1940s and 50s. Harlem here is a hard-bitten world where people dream of escape. There is a rumour that Whitehead plans a return engagement for Ray Carney. I sure hope so. Meanwhile, I’m rereading all my Chester Himes books.
The Apollo Murders, Chris Hadfield (Random House Canada, 480 pages)
Here’s another surprisingly good celebrity thriller. It looks like Hadfield spent the pandemic on this fat novel about Cold War jockeying and real-life space exploration. In a season when competing billionaires roar off in their own rockets, it’s worth remembering that the Space Race was, and still is, all about astronauts taking real chances to go to the moon, or Mars, or the edge of the universe.
Hadfield’s plot is a good solid thriller. We’re back in 1973 and, instead of the Apollo space program ending, it’s continuing. But 10 years before, the space program lost a brilliant pilot when Kaz Zemeckis flew a plane into a seagull. Kaz lost an eye and almost his life but he’s still in space virtually as he works with ground control.
When Washington realizes that a Soviet space station is really a spy module, the tension is on. As the Americans work to outwit their Russian counterparts, Kaz has a lot to do to keep his crews grounded but also stay on the lead as info comes in on just what the Soviets are doing. Laden with all sorts of insider space lore and grounded with Hadfield’s first-hand knowledge of space living, this thriller moves hard and fast. Like all specialists, Hadfield loves to overdo the technical stuff but fans of Tom Clancy have learned to skim that stuff and let the plot move. The one small caveat is having the Russians speak like Google Translate robots but they are the bad guys, so some Cyrillic garble is okay. Space nuts will love this book.
April In Spain, John Banville (HarperCollins, 320 pages)
Hurrah! Quirke is back. John Banville’s delightful Dublin pathologist is on holiday in Spain, soaking up the sun until he sees a ghost. A woman named April Latimer is there, in a bar, in Las Acadas. But it can’t be April Latimer because she’s dead, murdered years ago by her brother in a case that was the scandal of the decade in Ireland. April Latimer came from one of the country’s oldest and most powerful political families and her death revealed family secrets that ended a dynasty. As any fan knows, Quirke doesn’t give up. He might be wrong about the woman but he’s going to to dig deep first. Soon, his friend and colleague St. John Strafford is on the way to assist, But word of April’s reappearance has opened old wounds and soon, a hitman is also on the way – this may be Quirke’s last case.