Novel of the week

The Emperor of Ocean Park

Stephen L Carter <em>Jonathan Cape, 657pp, £18</em>

ISBN 0224062840

There is a curious disclaimer at the end of this debut novel. In a three-page note, the author writes that his book "is not a roman-a-clef on law teaching, or the bizarre process by which we confirm (or fail to confirm) Supreme Court justices, or the tribulations of middle-class black America, or anything else". Stephen L Carter is being disingenuous, because his novel is all of the above, and more. A professor of law at Yale, he has written books on law, religion and politics, and has now produced a thriller that cleverly wraps his concerns in a yarn. He has been rewarded with a multimillion-dollar advance, including a film deal with Warner Brothers.

It is not difficult to see why. His writing is assured and well-paced, and he is adept at feeding the reader just enough of the story for you to stay interested. For Carter, the devil is certainly in the detail. He describes each character from heel to chin, and every scene in earnest, as if already directing the film.

Talcott Garland, his black protagonist, is a professor of law at an Ivy League university, and sets about solving the mystery behind the recent death of his father. A federal judge and a confidant of two presidents, Oliver Garland was one of the most successful black men in America until his daughter died in a hit-and-run incident. Soon afterwards, the judge was called before the judiciary committee; he became an alcoholic, took a "tumble towards megalomania" and began to spend too much time pondering chess problems.

Aware that his life was in danger, he left his son a complex puzzle, "the arrangements", which would explain everything. Not only does Talcott have to deal with the sinister attentions of others who want the arrangements, but his wife is currently running for federal judge. Any scandal could ruin her chances.

From within this clash of academia, politics and crime, Carter writes with a keen satirical edge. He has fun bemoaning students, departmental rivalries and academic jargon, not to mention political correctness. His thinking goes deeper when addressing white liberalism, law and "the darker nation", which is how he describes black America. The chess motif - a device for regulating the mass of detail and debate - is less effective.

But is there any action? Yes, although it is rather sporadic. We are treated to a classic bad guy, Jack Ziegler, "a disgraced former employee of the CIA", and one of the most nefarious and powerful men in the United States. Carter also provides a strong supporting cast: from the members of Talcott's law department (all but one of whom desert him) and bogus private investigators, through basketball-playing adulterers and FBI agents, to a woman on roller-skates who follows Talcott everywhere he goes and Talcott's own family - the wife soon to leave him, and their son, about whom Carter writes with obvious affection.

But, like many authors of books in the campus-novel-meets-thriller genre, Carter is unsure of the turning points in the plot. Sometimes he italicises moments of suspense, and you wait for the dread-chords on an accompanying piano. Carter excels at the build-up, often only to find that he is stuck for a convincing way of moving on. As a result, much of the plot feels repetitive.

The ideas, the satire and the companionable tone carry us through, but when it comes to the denouement, we need to be rewarded for our endurance. Unfortunately, the last 60 pages deteriorate into a rally of implausible events: a hurricane with a killer in the woods, a drowning, a resurrection (of a bad guy thought dead) and several shootings in the cemetery.

Yet The Emperor of Ocean Park is a likeable book, not so much for its thrust at a thriller, but for its satire of American institutions and aspirations (and how race informs them), even if the author appears, in his endnote, to be having second thoughts.