September 24, 2010


I am skeptical of nonfiction writers who attempt to write novels. However, nonfiction writer Stephen L. Carter’s bestselling first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, convinced me that he has novel writing skills. He followed this success with the enjoyable second novel of conspiracy, New England White.
Sometimes a novelist’s quick success is followed by failure. This is not the case with Carter. Palace Council (2008, Vintage, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-307-38596-30), his third novel, is a political thriller about twenty Black and White men who in1952 met and devised a plan called “The Project” to take over the government of the United States. They called themselves the “Palace Council.”

The predominate voice in this complexly constructed novel is that of Edward Trotter Wesley, Jr. (Eddie), a successful Black novelist and essayist. The secondary, but no less important voice, is that of his ex-girlfriend Aurelia Treene Garner. She complements Eddie’s tendency toward physical action with her analysis and decoding of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the source of the Palace Council’s symbolism. Together, they try to stop the Palace Council.

We are taken immediately into the action when 30 months after the 1952 meeting, Eddie, leaving the party where Aurelia announces her engagement to Kevin Garner, stumbles over the body of Philmont Castle. In the dead man’s hand is an upside down Cross of Saint Peter. As a writer, Eddie is curious about the cross and why it is upside down, but his instinct tells him to run because it isn’t safe for a Black man to be found next to a dead White man in Harlem. His search for the significance of the cross is one thread of the action that drives the plot.

The main action is Eddie’s 20 year search for his younger sister Junie. She and a friend vanished on their way to the University of Chicago where Junie had planned to study law. Eddie’s encounter with the Palace Council begins when he learns that Junie may have joined the group in the 1960s, and that Perry Mount, a childhood friend, may have been the one who got her involved in the group’s plans.

Before he learns of Junie’s disappearance, however, Eddie draws the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover because of his involvement with two men whom Hoover suspects are Communists. The Black scientist Dr. Joseph Belt is found dead after Eddie tried unsuccessfully to interview him. A man calling himself Emil thinks Eddie knew Castle and asks him to retrieve some photos he took of Castle’s son for the Boy Scouts. When he interviews Eddie, Hoover reveals his real purpose: to persuade him to spy on some of the Black radicals.

Once Eddie starts looking for Junie, the FBI and Palace Council members follow him. The FBI believes she is Commander M, the leader of a radical group they call Jewel Agony that they suspect was involved in a car bombing that killed a White man following the death of the four little Black girls in the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. The Palace Council fears she knows too much and might reveal their plans to the authorities.

Aurelia’s marriage eventfully gives her access to information about the Palace Council she and Eddie later use to reveal its current leader. However, she doesn’t get deeply involved in helping Eddie until after Kevin is killed in a car bomb explosion, and she discovers he was heir to his father’s membership on the Palace Council. She realizes her son is now heir to the Garner’s membership. Thus, fear for her son leads her to join Eddie in the search for the “Testament” Philmont Castle left about the 1952 meeting.

Unknown to Eddie and Aurelia, a third party has taken over the Palace Council and is killing some of the older members. The third party is also searching for the “Testament.” Another danger the two face is the assassin someone has hired to follow them.

I enjoyed the Palace Council as much as I did Carter’s first two novels, but I had a feeling he was losing his inventive powers.