King Among Kings

The most interesting story in “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” the big-buzz debut thriller by Stephen L. Carter, takes place before the book opens.

It’s the tragedy Judge Oliver Garland suffered when his teenaged daughter, Angela, was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and was rejected for a seat on the Supreme Court when he was caught lying about his friendship with the gangster Jack Ziegler.

Carter’s book opens with the Judge — as he is known even by his children — found dead in his study from a heart attack. His son, law school professor Talcott Garland, learns at the funeral that the Judge had made “arrangements” of some kind before he died. Clues surface: Talcott receives a pawn from the Judge’s chess set, and later is told that “Angela’s boyfriend” contains the key to the arrangements.

Talcott is understandably mystified by all this. Unfortunately for him, other people are also interested in these arrange­ments, including Ziegler, and while he promises to protect the family until they are found, Talcott does not trust him, especially after he is stalked and attacked. Surviving long enough to learn what the Judge was up to provides the Macguffin behind this densely written 657-page thriller.

A professor of law at Yale and the author of several best-selling and well-received non-fiction books, Carter sets the story in his world, and he describes the black upper-class with the nuanced eye of an anthropologist. It is a land separate but equal from what Talcott repeatedly calls “the paler nation,” where the children go to Jack and Jill; attend Howard University; enter politics, the media or finance; vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and hold season tickets to Redskins games. The world of wealth, privilege and power is a staple of political thrillers, but seeing it through a black man’s eyes give it an unusual freshness to we members of the paler nation.

Carter also infuses the story with themes drawn from his non-fiction books. Talcott is a Christian who is challenged to stay true to his faith; a teacher concerned with the proper education of his students and about surviving the backstabbing found in academia. He’s a father looking back at his relationship with the Judge and determined not to repeat it with his son; and a husband unable to control his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity. These scenes, described by Carter’s polished, measured sentences, make up the bulk of the book. The rest is thriller filler: car chases, gunplay, late-night warnings phoned in and cat-and-mouse games with the villains and the police.

There are two Carters writing this book. One is the social observer who sees a cocky student as “young, white, confident, foolish, skinny, sullen, multiply pierced, bejeweled, dressed in grunge, cornsilk hair in a ponytail, utterly the cynical conformist, although he thinks he is an iconoclast.” The other delivers clumsy if-I-had-but-known foreshadowings and has the gangster say tone-deaf lines like “I have asked my question. I have delivered my warning. I have done what I came to do.”

“Emperor” is a tough book to like. The thriller elements don’t thrill. The slow-motion disintegration of Talcott’s marriage is more interesting. And the characters annoy. Talcott is a self-loathing and humorless drip whose introspective monologues give him an unearned gravity. His wife, a beautiful, ambitious attorney angling for a seat on the court of appeals, is a harridan and a viper. The rest of the family and the other characters range from the delusional to the unpleasant.

But balanced against that is the prose, the observations, and the obvious intelligence behind it all. You want to root for Carter to succeed, and when he finally tells us, in drips and drabs, the story of a judge drawn to an evil act and its soul-corroding effect on even the innocent and unknowing, you get the payoff of the novel that’s swaddled within.