Stephen L. Carter has written several nonfiction books on the law, religion, American culture, and affirmative action. Because of his background in writing nonfiction, I was skeptical about his talent as a novelist when I began reading his six hundred page first novel, The Emperor Of Ocean Park. As any good critic should, I controlled my bias against nonfiction writers writing novels and approached the novel with an open mind.
The Emperor Of Ocean Park is not a murder mystery, or whodunit it, though several dead bodies are a part of the events that trouble the narrator and main character, Talcott Garland. At the funeral of his father, Judge Oliver Garland, the emperor of the title, Talcott Garland, the Judge’s younger son, learns that certain people believe he has knowledge of the “the Arrangements” the Judge left behind, which does not refer to a will. He also discovers that his father chose him for the mission and left clues to help him find the information referred to as “the Arrangements.”
Talcott is married, has a four year old son, and is a professor of law at a small university near Washington DC. His father was a prominent judge on the Appeals Court and was denied a seat on the U. S. Supreme Court because of his friendship with Jack Ziegler, whom law enforcement agencies consider a dangerous criminal. Ziegler is the one who first reveals to Talcott the existence of “the Arrangements.” He doesn’t believe Talcott when he says he knows nothing about “the Arrangements.” Of course, Talcott doesn’t trust Ziegler. However, he begins to believe his father left something for him to do when a relative tells him his father expected him to carry out his wishes.
While going through the Judge’s things in the house he inherited in Martha’s Vineyard, Talcott notices that one of the chess pieces, a pawn, is missing from the Judge’s set. It is the first clue about the pattern the Judge wishes him to follow in his search for “the arrangements,” but at the time, he doesn’t understand what it means.
Talcott has to overcome several obstacles that interfere with his search. The first and foremost is his marriage. In the first third of the novel, his wife Kimberly is on the President’s short list of candidates for appointment to the US Court of Appeals. She believes Talcott’s seemingly odd behavior in pursuing the mission his father left for him to complete is having a negative affect on her chances, and Talcott believes she is having an affair with her boss at the law firm where she works.
His sister Mariah refuses to believe their father died of a heart attack. She keeps looking for a conspiracy and bugging Talcott with her findings that fail to show evidence of murder. He doesn’t tell her about the mission their father left for him to complete.
His older brother Addison, Talcott believes, knows something about their father that might help him but refuses to tell him, saying it is better he not know. Talcott suspects Addison already knows about the mission.
What most disturbs Talcott is the feeling he is being watched, but by whom, he doesn’t know. Add to all of these obstacles, because he is devoting so much time to his mission, he gets into trouble with the head of the university and is threaten with dismissal.
The key to the pattern he is to follow and the meaning of his father’s request is the chess problem, called a Double Excelsior, his father was trying to devise. “I remember my father's dream, to gain a measure of fame by creating the first Double Excelsior…. The Double Excelsior, but with black victorious in the end.”
The pawns, one black and one white, suggest to him that his father might have had an enemy—a white person. In chess problems, white always wins. His father, Talcott reasons, wants, in the end, for black to win.
As his search for “the Arrangements” progresses, Talcott searches for answers to two disturbing questions: Did his father hire someone to kill the two people who were in the car that hit and killed his younger sister Abigail? Why did his father buy a gun? The answers will change his image of his father as he gains insight into the man he really was.
The last scene is one of the best in the book. Talcott’s search ends during a hurricane in the Vineyard where he faces his father’s enemy. He explains his father’s actions:
My father left his Double Excelsior behind him, not on the board but in life, setting in motion his two pawns, one black, one white, matching moves, each stalking the other, one agonizing square at a time, until they reached the far side of their board on a storm-darkened beach in Oak Bluffs, where they faced each other for the final time.
I admire the effort Mr. Carter obviously put into writing the novel and his effort to construct an intricate plot. The novel’s chess game structure with the heading of each of the three sections referring to a chess problem gives the plot some intricacy but does not justify 600 pages. Nevertheless, once the reader accepts the fact that some parts are skippable, the story is enjoyable.