“Emperor“ is the fictional debut of Carter, a Yale law professor and distinguished conservative African-American intellectual who has authored seven acclaimed nonfiction books, including “The Culture of Disbelief“ and “Civility.“
It was released to great acclaim, being heralded as a novel of great originality in terms of it being the saga of an African-American family of affluence and privilege who are forced to deal with their crimes and misdemeanors, and has created the same sort of literary excitement that was generated when John Grisham burst onto the scene with “The Firm.“ While thats an easy comparison to make, “Emperor“ is a far more complex work, rich in social observation and personal insight.
The tale is set in two exclusive worlds, that of old-monied African-American society of the eastern seaboard who summer on Marthas Vineyard, and an Ivy League law school.
In the opening chapter, “The Latest News by Phone,“we meet protagonist Talcott Garland, an African-American law professor at an elite university who is son of Judge Oliver Garland, a man with a brilliant legal mind who was conservative, controversial, and not without his share of enemies. Carter writes:
“This is the happiest day of my life,“ burbles my wife of nearly nine years on what will shortly become one of the saddest days of mine.
“I see,“ I answer, my tone conveying my hurt.
“Oh, Misha, grow up. Im not comparing it with marrying you.“ A pause. “Or having a baby,“ she adds with a footnote.
“I know, I understand.“
Another pause. I hate pauses on the telephone, but, then, I hate the telephone itself, and much else besides. In the background, I hear a laughing male voice. Although it is almost eleven in the morning in the East, it is just nearing eight in San Francisco. But there is no need to be suspicious; she could be calling from a restaurant, a shopping mall, or a conference room.
“I thought you would be happy for me,“ Kimmer says at last.
“I am happy for you,“ I assure her, far too late. “Its just .“
“Oh, Misha, come on.“ She is impatient now. “Im not your father, okay? I know what Im getting into. What happened to him is not going to happen to me. What happened to you is not going to happen to our son. Okay? Honey?“
Nothing happened to me, I almost lie, but I refrain, in part because I like the rare and scrumptious taste of Honey. With Kimmer for once so happy, I do not want to cause trouble. I certainly do not want to tell her that the joy I feel at her accomplishment is diminished by my concern over how my father will react. I say softly,“ I just worry about you, thats all.“
“I can take care of myself,“ Kimmer assures me, a proposition so utterly true that it is frightening. I marvel at my wifes capacity to hide good news, at least from her husband, She learned some time yesterday that her years of subtle lobbying and careful political contributions have at last paid off, that she is among the finalists for a vacancy on the federal court of appeals. I try not to wonder how many people she shared her joy with before she got around to calling home.“
From that passage, one immediately senses Tals wariness and paranoia, and we soon learn that most of that is not unfounded. He discovers that his father has just died, suddenly and suspiciously. Judge Garland was no stranger to scandal, having been on the brink of a Supreme Court nomination before having it stripped from him on national TV, when it was revealed in Senate hearings that he had a friendship with Jack Ziegler, a maverick former CIA agent rumored to be an organized crime boss.
The event bitterly humiliated him for the rest of his life, but when Ziegler turns up at his funeral, Tal must deal with him and a cryptic, mysterious message left by his father, entrusting him with “the arrangements.“ A successive series of clues linked to chess strategies (“you have little time.... Excelsior! It begins!“) are linked to more discoveries about his fathers past. Another death and more clues prompt Tal into action and a web of danger that could cost him his job, his family, and most likely his life.
“The Emperor of Ocean Park“ has all of the best ingredients for a juicy legal thriller. There are deep, dark family secrets, greed, ambition, intrigue, and betrayal, all played out by attorneys, government officials, powerbrokers, law professors, the FBI, shady underworld figures, chess masters, and various friends and relatives. Everything Tal comes in contact with is a threat, and the fragility of his own world is underscored at every turn. Events especially steamroll in the last 100 pages, making it very difficult to set down.
Carter certainly acquits himself as a masterful storyteller who brings an insiders perspective too his insights, which are particularly keen on topics like race and power politics. Each surprising development is credible, and the author has raised the bar, no pun intended, for the genre. This will no doubt make it to the big screen some time soon, and would be a fitting vehicle for Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. In the meantime, book lovers can look forward to Carters next fictional outing, which will have to be quite something to top this one.