June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

By Stephen L. Carter

A distinguished Yale legal scholar best known for seven thoughtful nonfiction tomes on race, law and morality is not an obvious candidate for a $4 million advance (plus a movie deal) for his first two novels. But you’ll get no objections here. At 654 pages, this is a thriller that is as heady as it is hefty.

Carter’s debut as a novelist, more Le Carré than Grisham, is a vivid, twisty puzzle of deceit and social commentary. When disgraced black judge and former Reagan Supreme Court nominee Oliver Garland dies, a shadowy ex-CIA agent who was a longtime friend surfaces, seeking what he cryptically calls the judge’s “arrangements.” Finding whatever they are falls to Garland’s son, Talcott, a nerdy law professor on a fictional elite New England campus. Following a series of clues—based on arcane chess strategy—from Martha’s Vineyard to Aspen, Talcott uncovers family secrets and learns that his father’s life was more complex than he ever knew.

What Emperor lacks in originality it gains in tone. Carter often nails mores—one law professor is struggling with the “academic art of telling people to their faces something other than what you really think.” Using Talcott’s wry depictions of place, power and privilege, Carter keeps attitude spinning where plot falters: To Talcott, blacks form “the darker nation.” In Aspen the homes of the nouveau riche remind him of “the yawning chasm between money and taste.” With Emperor, Carter fills the gap between intrigue and intelligence. (Knopf, $26.95)

Bottom Line: Royal dandy

You May Like