In Print : Stephen Carter: Novel approach
"Jericho's Fall" by Stephen Carter Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. $25.95. 351 ppg.
Ever wonder what kind of mischief aging CIA types with too much time on their hands could get into? Quite a bit is the answer from best-selling author Stephen L. Carter.
In "Jericho's Fall," his new mystery thriller, Jericho Ainsley, 66, a former CIA head living in a high-tech Colorado mountain retreat, has been busy in his forced retirement after a career in America's dirty tricks department.
This is Mr. Carter's 11th book and fourth novel, one that seems to be taking him in a different direction. First, Jericho Falls is 351 pages, a slim volume compared with best-selling "The Emperor of Ocean Park," "New England White" and "Palace Council," 500- and 600-page behemoths by mystery standards.
Then too, Becky, the protagonist, is a white middle-class mom. Mr. Carter, a regular seasonal visitor to the Island, rocketed to New York Times and Island best-seller lists with sagas of African-American aristocracy in America told by male African-American protagonists, novels that brought to life research of the African-American experience now being done by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
In "Jericho's Fall," the word is out that during his days in covert U.S. operations, including a stint as CIA director, Jericho Ainsley has amassed a lot of details on a lot of bad behavior by a lot of people around the world. He's let it be known that if any harm comes to him or to his family - if Jericho falls - it all will see the light of day.
His life insurance gambit has the attention of a host of shadowy types, including the actual CIA, a rogue CIA colleague and financier as well as a host of unidentified governments and organizations.
None of them really wants to get the ball rolling. They'd prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak, but there are complications: Ainsley is known to be off his rocker, he's dying of brain cancer and he's called his unwitting former lover to help him move the documents from his aerie in the mountains outside Vail.
The novel takes place over a four-day period when the protagonist, a 34-year old mom, shows up - she believes - to say goodbye. Ainsley has other ideas that set the bad guys off, with action building to a wild conclusion. A constant theme is whether or not Ainsley is driven by paranoia and brain cancer or whether he's running one of his legendary operations - or both.
We believe Jericho does fall in Carter's newest novel, but it's not a straight drop and if you don't pay careful attention, the novel's intricate twists and turns will have you scratching your head to keep up. It's a page-turner, no question, but Mr. Carter's reputation for tricky plotlines seems merited, requiring this reader several times to reread earlier passages to stay on track. The good news is it's worth it.
Four female characters dominate the novel and Mr. Carter has drawn them well - strong, tough, and different from each other. Two of them are Ainsley's daughters. One of them is so realistically and consistently unpleasant, the reader may wonder why Ainsley's including her in his protection scheme, if indeed that's what he's up to.
The concluding chapter screams for a sequel. For example, we don't completely understand Ainsley's fate or find out who ended up with his documentation. There are also several loose ends of the plotline with other involved but unseen family members. Mr. Carter has been criticized for over-writing in the past. This reader would have happily granted him 50 more pages to tie up the strands unless there's a sequel in the works.
But there's a hope here that Becky and Maxine, an African-American freelance assassin who saves Becky's bacon in the final chapter, will be a dynamic duo going forward.
Author's Talk: Stephen Carter, "Jericho's Fall," tonight, Thursday, Aug. 13, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Hosted by Bunch of Grapes. On Saturday, Aug.15, Mr. Carter will be signing books at Cousen Rose Gallery, Oak Bluffs, from 7-9 pm.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.