The new novel by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton, “State of Terror,” is a fascinating read in so many ways and in so many directions that it’s difficult to decide exactly where to begin the review. Since the genre of the piece, however, is aptly labelled “mystery,” we can safely assume that we should begin with that description as the first order of business.
The mystery is complex and complicated, certainly not the typical whodunit, wherein a crime, usually a murder, is committed, and the rest of the novel describes the search for the perpetrator. In this case, the first crime is the bomb placed on a crowded bus in London. The resulting explosion kills every passenger. It’s an act of terror, pure and simple — well, actually not pure at all and definitely not simple. As the plot unfolds, two more crowded buses in major European cities explode, killing all the passengers. Except one. And that escapee is an important character in the novel. All of which leads us to an accounting of the main characters.
The protagonist, Ellen Adams, is the newly appointed Secretary of State. Her son, not so incidentally, is the one who managed to get off of the third bus before it exploded. Ellen’s appointment to her new government position is a surprise because she has been a rather bitter critic of the new American President, especially during his campaign for the presidency. (Sound familiar?) Though Ellen is clearly the main character, there is a large cast of other very important ones: Ellen’s best friend, who is her invaluable assistant; the president; the former president; both of Ellen’s two adult children; a comparatively low-ranking female employee of the U.S. intelligence system; several military and political figures (who bring to mind important members, many of questionable integrity, of “the previous administration”); a group of nuclear physicists, including one who is a major villain of the piece; and more. Many more.
The plot is suspenseful, often confusing, unique, politically and morally powerful, and quite controversial. I would not, for example, dare to recommend the book to any fan of the American president from 2017 to 2021. And several characters, both male and female, are effectively drawn so that we can’t be sure whether they’re heroes or villains. And in some cases, they are a bit of both — just like the very flawed characters and characteristics of real people, real politics, and real life.
One of the unusual features of the plot structure is that the identity of the terrorist who is behind the crimes is revealed early on; the characters who help him carry out his plot — by no means minor characters — comprise a hefty portion of the core of the suspense; but we also wonder not just who those traitors are, but when and where the the next attack or attacks will occur and, above all, how the evil plans can be discovered and foiled before more hundreds or even thousands of lives will be taken.
But all these issues, compelling as they are, are not the only cleverly handled elements of the novel. The book is also enjoyable because of the inevitable comparisons of its characters and events to those actually experienced by Hillary Clinton. Ellen, the protagonist, experiences so many events that remind us of Ms. Clinton’s term as Secretary of State that we can’t help but compare them: the surprising appointment to the position; the personal relationships, sometimes fulfilling, often difficult or even ugly; the heart-stopping and all-too-often heartbreaking events that befall the office holder; the puzzle of knowing whom to trust (if anyone); and the compromises that are necessary to keep a democracy afloat, compromises that may even force one to deny and defy her own moral compass.
There are characters who remind us of Colin Powell, Huma Abedin, Barack Obama, several political appointees of “the previous administration,” and, of course, the “boss” of that administration, who is treated with the requisite disrespect that we might expect from one of the co-authors. Scary and hilarious at the same time. Again, just like “real life.”
Brilliant execution, as usual, from the superb mystery author, Louise Penny, who, incidentally, manages to get her famous Inspector Gamache involved in the case, cleverly and convincingly; and marvelous political and personal insight from Hillary Clinton, whose brave first dive into the worlds of fiction and mystery will certainly be widely judged as an admirable effort. We’ll look forward to their next literary duet.
Review by Jack Kramer.
Please note, this review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by St. Martin’s Press, the publisher, for review purposes.