Low morals on high ground

 

Fiction:Five years ago, Stephen L Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University, created an international splash with his debut novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, a thriller set among the twin worlds of Ivy League universities and American judicial appointments, terrains with which the author was intimately acquainted from his own professional life.

Published with so much hype that it was always going to be difficult to satisfy expectations, the novel proved to be an entertaining and erudite story, with echoes of Tom Wolfe in its vast panoply of characters and careful dissection of upper-class hypocrisies and mores, although it weighed in at nearly 600 pages and one couldn't help but feel that it might have been improved with a little more judicious cutting.

Carter's second novel, New England White, is an equally weighty story but there seems to be less fat on the bones this time around. Set in a similar world of elite African-Americans who are as involved in the politics of the university campus as they are in the politics of the United States, the story is dominated by secrets and past indiscretions, which threaten the stability of two of Carter's (and American fiction's) central concerns - the family and the community, in this case the rich, well-educated, intellectual black community.

The novel opens with Lemaster and Julia Carlyle, "the most celebrated couple in African America's lonely Harbor County outpost", the president of a university and its Dean of Divinity respectively, already undergoing a family trauma with the misbehaviour of their daughter, who has displayed a predilection for torching cars. Their troubles increase when they discover a dead body by the side of the road on a New England snowy white night, a body that turns out to be that of Kellen Zant, a long-ago lover of Julia's and no friend of Lemaster's.

Unusually for a novel such as this, it is not Lemaster, the patriarch of the family, whose actions define the story's movement, but his wife, Julia, who demands answers about her former lover's death. When it is discovered that Prof Zant and the Carlyles' daughter made a series of phone calls to each other in the weeks leading up to his death, Julia's concerns about the victim begin to change. Having spent weeks grieving his passing, "she wished he were still alive, so that she would have the pleasure of killing him".

Carter proves himself to be almost forensic in the clarity of his characterisation and sentence structure; even his section titles, a series of economic terms - Maximising Utility, Supplying Demand, Clearing The Market - suggest a mind more concerned with the intellectualisation of writing, rather than the poetry of it. But of course, in a novel as lengthy as this, there are a series of red herrings and McGuffins laid down by the author along the way in order to tease the reader and send him or her in unexpected directions.

The novel takes a political turn with the introduction of a looming presidential race, the current occupant of the Oval Office being Lemaster's former room-mate. The murky shadowlands of political intrigue and amorality are illuminated as Julia continues her investigations into the reasons why Zant was killed - exactly what it was that he had discovered - and her worries about discovering a possible truth threaten to overwhelm her, "that thirty years ago, when he was a student, the man who was now President of the United States had committed a terrible crime; or that the man who was now president of the university was helping him cover it up".

Ultimately, New England White proves itself to be a very rare thing indeed: an intellectually stimulating thriller by a writer who is as concerned with an exploration of character and motive as he is in ending each of his short mini-chapters with a cliffhanger. There are stylistic flourishes which are perhaps a little too omnipresent - innumerable references to "the darker nation" for example, as if such a phrase is an idiom of daily speech, not to mention the irritating Oprah-wise aphorisms of Julia's wise old Granny Vee - but it remains a clear notch above the average mystery thriller that litters the shelves of bookshops. And you have to admire Carter's defiant determination to make what is essentially an upmarket airport read so unwieldy to carry around.

John Boyne's novel The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas recently won the CBI Bisto Book of the Year award

New England White By Stephen L Carter Jonathan Cape, 555pp. £17.99