- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, $25.95, 351 pages

Now comes Stephen Carter — for the fourth time in fiction — beginning thusly: “On the Sunday before the terror began, Rebecca DeForde pointed her rental car into the sullen darkness of her distant past.” To which I can only say, oh, puleeze.

OK, an unkind opening on my part, perhaps, but, let me ask you, is that a beginning that makes you think what follows will get better, either as thriller fiction or as felicitous writing? “Going out, Hon?” “Yes, I thought I’d take a spin into the sullen darkness of my distant past.” “Oh, better be careful!”

Rebecca DeForde, 35 and as much of a knockout as her predecessors in Stephen L. Carter’s highly popular three previous novels, has a rather pedestrian present. The divorced mother of a 7-year-old girl, Rebecca dropped out of Princeton after one year and now advises “… the folks who own my company to put the perfumes to the right or to the left of the jewelry counter as you walk into the store.”

The invitation to revisit her distant past has come from the man who made it both sullen and dark, Jericho Ainsley, former head of the CIA, former secretary of defense, then Ivy League college professor, and finally Wall Street money-maker, now dying of cancer in his Colorado mountaintop redoubt. The home, a hugely expensive, heavily fortified, high-tech guarded fortress, has everything but a moat. Jericho may be on his way out, but he has no intention of going gently into that good night.

Perhaps mad, perhaps just himself — apparently once a plotting, scheming, devious spymaster always a plotting, scheming, devious spymaster — Ainsley has scores to settle. There’s the anger of his children who never let him forget he left their mother for then 19-year old Rebecca DeForde, plus who knows what all intrigues he was involved in as DCI or SecDef, and as a titan on Wall Street he was part of a legendarily successful private equity firm that eventually did a total Madoff Meltdown. The man whom friends and family refer to as “The Former Everything” is definitely a man with scores to settle.

He has summoned Rebecca de Winter — excuse me, DeForde — up to his mountaintop because he says needs her help. But help with what, exactly? A new will, a tell-all memoir? That’s the plot-driving question that has several competing forces eager to find out. They all want to use “Beck” to find out what Jericho is up to before he falls — or blows the walls down. And they all play rough. One major force is represented by “Dak,” short for Philip Akadakos, Ainsley’s former comrade in arms when both served on the highest levels of the CIA’s mountaintop. Dak is, apparently, still loyal to the Agency and also to Jericho, or is he?

And then there’s the FBI, once again portrayed as bumblers, and it’s not clear if they’re trying to protect Ainsley from someone or vice versa. Also in the cast are the local police, a buffoonish sheriff and his smart and handsome deputy, plus a wild man of an investigative reporter who may or may not be what he says he is, and a sinister group of unknowns busily killing dogs, crashing and blowing up vehicles, flying black helicopters over the property, messing with cell phones and computers, and, at the end, eliminating people with extreme prejudice.

As for Rebecca, she’s trying hard to learn what Jericho wants her help with, but she has to contend with Ainsley’s bitter daughters, one of them a man-eater and the other a former CIA interrogator-turned-Episcopalian nun (I kid you not). Oh, and off in the distance but perhaps also pulling strings, is Ainsley’s only son, who hates him. There are others too, but you’d have to take notes.

The action that begins with the Sunday drive lasts until Friday, by which time all hell has broken loose, and the landscape is littered with bodies. In the end, the secret’s out, for what that turns out to be worth. The point, I guess, is how terribly some (all?) human beings can screw up their lives and those of others, even those they may love. And maybe also what a bummer power can be.

Stephen L. Carter’s day job remains that of the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale. In that capacity, he wrote seven books of nonfiction, but as he showed — especially with the first two (“The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “New England White”) — he can also write popular fiction. It’s just not fiction that’s popular with me. Sorry, but there it is.

As I suggested by quoting the book’s first sentence, he often becomes melodramatic, or pretentious when he’s going for profound, humorless when funny would help and funny when it doesn’t, and fond of the occasional odd name or word: e.g., he describes a character as being “dubitante,” which I had to go beyond my pocket-sized French-to-English dictionary to learn probably means “doubtful.”

Some of the writing is maddeningly imprecise, while at other times he’s too specific, as when a cop in a hurry asks a witness if she saw “a man, about sixty-six, white, broad shoulders?” Is she going to say no because the man she saw was only “about sixty-five” or “about sixty-seven?” Along the same lines, Mr. Carter tells us as Beck and the deputy sit in a tavern she looks across the room and sees “a trio of sixtyish women drinking gin.” Not vodka, not water, gin. Wow! Maybe she should be the cop.

That last point is my major objection to Stephen Carter’s fiction. His heroines, especially the last several, are for my money far too clever to be credible. I just can’t believe they could, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, keep all these diametrically opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Especially when bombs burst overhead and bullets fly past. No way. Color me dubitante.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.



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