Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter








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The 500+ rambling pages of Stephen Carter’s new novel, Palace Council, provide entertaining summer reading in which the setting or pace change fast enough to keep one from drowsing in too much exposition or dialogue. The multiple plot threads can become a challenge to follow, along with a huge ensemble of characters, including a fictionalized Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. Set from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, Palace Council presents a story about power in the black community and in politics, and in the merging of personal and common interests. Just when the reader sets into a comfortable flow, the plot shifts, and something new, often surprising, leads us in a new direction. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 2, “The Cross,” pp. 18-21:


Every corpse on which Eddie Wesley had ever laid eyes had belonged, once, to someone he knew, for his familiarity with the species flowed entirely from encounters at funeral parlors and what were called "homegoing services" at his father's church. His term in the Army had been served entirely within the nation's borders, and even during his months working for Scarlett he had never touched what Lenny called the happy end of the business. It was past midnight when Eddie came upon his first-ever unknown body. He was wandering among the lush trees of Roger Morris Park, across Jumel Terrace from the party, talking himself down, remembering how his father always warned against treating desire as implying entitlement. The park was closed to visitors after dark and haunted besides, but Eddie was a doubter of conventions and rules, except in literature, where he accepted them entirely. The park had once been the grounds of the most famous mansion in all of Manhattan, the ornate Palladian palace that had been home, a century and a half ago, to Madame Jumel, per- haps the wealthiest woman in the land. This was back around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, when the Haarlem Heights had been a dis­tant, rural enclave for the white and well-to-do of the polyglot city. Harlem of Eddie's era, after sixty years of Negrification, possessed few genuine tourist attractions, and the Jumel Mansion was among the few, although its principal lure was probably the ghost of Madame herself, occasionally spotted leaning from the upper windows to shush unruly visitors and, now and then, crossing the hall before your eyes, perhaps searching for the fortune that her second husband was said to have stolen. Most of Harlem pooh-poohed the ghost stories by day, and avoided Roger Morris Park at night.

Eddie did not think much of the supernatural, considering that more Wesley Senior's realm.

He stumbled over the body in the shadow of a dead elm very near the wrought-iron fence, where a passerby would no doubt have spotted it from the sidewalk early the next morning. The stumbling was literal, for Eddie, pained eyes on the townhouse where every moment drew Aurelia further from him, was not looking down. He tripped, and his chest hit crusty mounded snow. He turned and, spotting a man lying behind him, spun, catlike, to his feet, remembering the boys who had mugged him in Newark. Even when he crept closer and took in the elegant suit and watch chain, the lack of an overcoat despite the Febru­ary chill, the white skin, the well-fed jowly face, the closed eyes, and the unmoving hands, he was certain the man must have tripped him on purpose, because—on this point, years later, he was firm—five minutes ago, on his previous circuit along the fence, the man had not been there.

"Hey," said Eddie, anger fading as he got a good look. He shook the man's shoulder. "Hey!"

A fresh night snow was by this time brushing the city, and tiny twirling flakes settled on the stranger's forehead and lips as well as on the hands folded across his substantial chest. Still the man made no move.

"Are you okay? Hey. Wake up!"

But by that time Eddie had guessed that the man would not be wak­ing. A white man, dead in Harlem. The press would have a field day. Not afraid but, for once, uncertain of his ground, Eddie knelt on the frozen ground and unfolded the man's pudgy hands, intending to check the pulse, although he had no idea how it was done. When he separated the fingers, something gold glinted and fell to the snow. Eddie picked it up. A cross, perhaps an inch and a half long, ornately worked, with an inscription on it he could not read in the faint glow of a streetlamp out­side the fence. Then he realized that the words were upside down. Inverting the cross, twisting it to catch the light, he could make out "We shall," and, in the dark, no more. Maybe the next word was "over­come"? But the light was too dim.

The cross dangled from a gold chain, threaded oddly through an eyelet at the bottom rather than the top, so that, had the dead man been wearing it around his neck, the cross would have been upside down, the words right side up. Eddie wondered why he had been clutching it at all. Seeking protection, perhaps. But from what? Leaning closer, squinting, Eddie had his first hint. Around the plump neck, digging into discolored flesh, was a leather band. The man had been garroted.

Eddie shot to his feet, senses woozily alert. If the body had not been here five minutes ago,then the killer must be nearby. He listened, but snow crunched in every direction. He peered, but in the trees every shadow swayed. Eddie was no fool. A garrote meant Scarlett, or some­body like Scarlett, and the Scarletts of the world had a thing about witnesses.

He wiped off the cross, tucked it back into the cold, lifeless hands, and hurried away. Crawling through the gap in the fence gave Eddie more trouble than usual, maybe because he was trembling. Struggling toward the sidewalk, he kept waiting for the garrote to slip around his own neck. He looked up at the townhouse but could not face the humiliation of return. He plunged south. Fat Man's, the famous bar and grill on i 55th Street, was open late, packed as usual with Negro celebrities. If you could get in, Fat Man's was the place to be seen, and right now Eddie wanted to be seen, as far as possible from Roger Mor­ris Park. He called the police from the pay phone in the back, not trou­bling to share his name. He had a drink, but everybody seemed to be looking at him. Maybe because he did not belong. Maybe because he was trembling and sweaty. Maybe nobody was looking, but Eddie took no chances. He threw money down without counting: it must have been enough, because the bartender thanked him and even said "sir."

Home was a narrow walk-up on 123rd Street, noisy and airless, an address he seldom admitted outside his tiny circle, for the Valley, as it was called by the cognoscenti, was far from the most desirable corner of Harlem. For letters from his relatives he had invested prudently in a post-office box. Two flights up, in his claustrophobic flat, Eddie sweated the night away, perched on his lumpy but carefully made bed, journal in his lap, baseball bat by his side, watching the fetid alley they would use to gain entry to the side door when they came for him.


By morning, the city was abuzz. The dead man was a lawyer named Castle. Eddie had never heard of him but read every obituary he could get his hands on. Philmont Castle was evidently a titan of Wall Street. Corporations across the country issued condoling statements. So did several film actors. Eddie turned the pages. It seemed there was nobody the lawyer had not befriended. President Eisenhower said the whole nation would miss Phil Castle. He promised federal assistance in tracking down whoever had committed this loathsome outrage—or words to that effect. The lawyer had been a major Republican fund­raiser. And a devoted husband and father. And a pillar of his church. And a guest last night at "an engagement party in Harlem."

Eddie put the newspaper down with a snap.

Try as he might, he could not correlate the smiling face on every front page with any of the Caucasian faces from last night. But there had been so many, and Eddie, if the truth were told, had stared mainly at the bride-to-be. He turned more pages. No mention of the cause of death, except that it was murder. Castle's wallet was missing. The police called it a robbery, not exactly an unknown event in Harlem, although the white newspapers seemed unaware that crime of any kind was relatively rare in those days along the nicer blocks. No speculation anywhere on exactly what a Wall Street lawyer might have been doing on the grounds of Jumel Mansion. Nothing about a cross clutched in Castle's dead hands, whether right side up or upside down. And no whisper of anybody's having noticed an angry, half-drunk Negro writer leaving the party around the same time the dead man did.

The authorities never questioned Eddie. Days passed. He could not get the cross out of his mind. He wished he had had time to read the rest of the inscription. He risked a rare letter to Wesley Senior, inquir­ing but not saying why. The pastor answered by return post. His tone for once was patient. He enjoyed being didactic. The upside-down cross was often called the Cross of Saint Peter, because tradition held that the leader of the Apostles had been crucified that way. The Roman Catholic Church considered the symbol sacred. Over the centuries, he added, the upside-down cross had been adopted as an object of venera­tion by the worshipers of Satan, or, as Wesley Senior put it, quoting Scripture, the followers of "the devil and his angels."

Eddie decided it was just coincidence.


The title refers to a secret group of powerful individuals trying to influence change in America. Beneath the actions of many characters in the novel is a consuming longing for power. Some cross many lines to get the power they crave. Palace Council will appeal to many readers, and will be of special interest to those of us who lived in the decades in which the novel is set.


Steve Hopkins, August 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the Seeptember 2008 issue of Executive Times


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