Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny Political Thriller: NPR
Simon & Schuster
I approached the package with caution. The book inside could be a problem, a big deal. Literary collaborations usually are and this one by two successful women gave warning signs of being a high profile gimmick gone wrong.
Don’t open the bookI thought to myself, but I couldn’t resist nocturnal, secret readings, so to speak. And before I knew it, I had lost my grip and fell headlong into the frenzied feminist fantasy of State of terror, a thriller by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.
Let’s take stock: Clinton and Penny are personal friends – a friendship that was sparked by Clinton’s admiration for Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series. Following the loss of Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and the loss of her husband Penny, who suffered from dementia, they decided to collaborate on a political thriller.
Both women have said in interviews that they want to have fun during a difficult time and pay tribute to the power of female friendship. Call me naive, but the resulting thriller, while uneven, backs up their claims.
State of terror is what Graham Greene called “entertainment.” Finding fine handwriting or intricate characters here would be as pointless a quest as finding the Maltese Falcon. Instead, like most political thrillers, State of terror is an intrigue-driven concoction, featuring a classic race against time to outsmart international terrorists and local traitors determined to turn the United States into a Russian satellite state.
The twist here is the sex of the action figure barking orders and sweating out his mascara in an effort to save American democracy. Not only is she a woman, but a middle-aged Secretary of State, Ellen Adams.
Alongside Adams is his trusted advisor and childhood best friend, a woman named Betsy Jameson. Together, they outsmart a cabal of evil potentates, minions, and dictators as they ricochet around the world on Air Force Three. Call it “The Sorority of Travel Pantsuits”.
State of terror is a dizzying read, especially for older women; say, we women of an age old enough to think that Daniel Craig’s just ended run as James Bond lost much of his mojo when Judi Dench as “M” left the series in Fall from the sky.
Suspense – not to mention political suspense – is still pretty much a white man’s game. Lauren Wilkinson’s recent Cold War thriller, american spy, is one of the rare novels of this genre featuring a woman of color– and one who is a professional. Most often, when female characters take a leading role in the suspense, they have stumbled upon it. This is especially true for WWII thrillers starring spies and assassins: think about Eye of the needle, by Ken Follett; Fall into disgrace, by Larry Collins; and Three hours in Paris by Cara Black.
Dench’s ‘M’ was the rarest animal – an ambitious professional senior woman wielding power. And that’s what makes State of terror intriguing, especially in its second half when Penny-branded one-sentence paragraphs escalate the pace of suspense and Clinton’s fictional alter ego passes by. mano a mano with two of his real enemies: Putin, here called Ivanov, and a former American president, here called “Eric Dunn”.
There has always been a settling potential inherent in mystery and thriller; for example, the late literary Carolyn Heilbrun regularly targeted colleagues at Columbia University’s English department in her Amanda Cross mysteries. Here, at the end of an unsuccessful encounter with Dunn at his Palm Beach palace, Adams lets his nemesis know who is responsible:
“Thank you for your time.” [Adams] held out his hand, and when [Dunn] took it, she pulled and pulled the huge man up to her, so that their noses were touching and she felt his breath. It smelled of meat. …
“You have made it clear time and time again that nothing has happened in the White House without your approval.… If there is a disaster, it will be thrown at your big golden door. I will make sure….”
All thrillers are fantastic stories, fantasies of power and ingenuity. In State of terror, an older woman draws on her expertise, a reserve of feminine solidarity, and the magic of a tool James Bond never scored – a pair of Spanxes – and she manages to avert disaster. As thriller fantasies fade away, this one strikes me as much more plausible than most.