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Carter's New Thriller Mixes Murder, Love And Politics

Stephen Carter is an accomplished Yale Law School professor who has become an accomplished novelist with a series of best-selling books that probe hot-button issues: political corruption, class warfare, racial tension, middle-class angst. His books include The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White.

His lastest novel, Palace Council, based in the 1950s and 1960s, is a sprawling and complicated tale.

In a conversation with NPR's Michele Norris, Carter calls it a thriller, a conspiracy, a love story and historical fiction.

The central character is an ambitious writer named Eddie Wesley. He spends three decades trying to solve a murder, find his missing sister, crack a secret society and win back the love of his life — a beauty named Aurelia Treene.

Carter says his characters are "trying to discover what is the nature of the hidden force they've detected behind important events in America."

That is, important events in the 1950s and 1960s, an era that Carter says society must understand in order to understand modern America.

Carter's plot wraps in real historical personages, including Langston Hughes, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Those figures play important roles as the plot unfolds — especially Nixon, whom Carter describes as "one of the most fascinating and enigmatic — and in many ways, scary — figures in American political history."

"He embodied something about America, but something that's scary about America — and that is that we love winners," Carter says. "We don't ask how they won unless somebody — usually a journalist — rubs our nose in it. And then we say, 'We had no idea he was taking steroids' or whatever it may have been. And then we turn in a fury on this person, but we don't ask, we don't inquire how people win. We love that they win."

Carter, who has clearly studied history and the human psyche, said he was naturally drawn to writing a thriller.

"The real skill that lawyers have that other people don't — it is thinking about contingencies: 'What if this happens? what if this happens?'" Carter says. "That's what lawyers are trained to do. So when a lawyer sits down to write a novel, it should be no surprise that the lawyer, at the end of every chapter, is thinking of some outlandish turn in the plot. It's what lawyers do naturally."

But even though lawyers think of contingencies naturally, the process may not always be easy. Carter calls writing fiction, compared with writing nonfiction, pure "agony."

"When I spend a day, all day long, writing nonfiction, at the end I'm tired, but I'm perfectly happy," he says. "When I spend a day writing fiction, I am utterly drained, utterly exhausted. It's as though I get so involved — not with the story — but with the characters, that I'm feeling their aches and pains."

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