Not to be outdone by husband Bill, who has teamed up with James Patterson twice, Hillary Clinton has collaborated with Canadian crime author Louise Penny for a blockbuster political thriller. State of Terror is a zeitgeisty tale immersed in realpolitik with an all-too-plausible nightmare scenario that could happen tomorrow. The authors have created a decent cast of players who battle the odds admirably. This includes two truly memorable female protagonists – Ellen Adams, Secretary of State for Foreign Policy, and her best friend Betsy.
Ellen was appointed by President Douglas Williams who believes that his focus will be on home affairs addressing the damage done by the previous administration. The trouble is that now America faces an apocalyptic threat and Williams has to rely on her. Naturally, Ellen Adams has to navigate the every-day machismo and misogyny of the male-dominated political arena just to do her job.
Who knows exactly how a writing partnership of this kind works but it does feels like Clinton had tonnes of input across both the plot and the minutiae of the story. State of Terror is set in her world and is loaded with the kind of insider knowledge that gives the story an authentic feel. Some of us will enjoy the intimate insight, but it’s occasionally a problem here because that detail can weigh on the narrative. Research, or for that matter lived experience, should always be worn lightly in a thriller.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s knowledge of geopolitics and how the world really works is astute, intriguing and feels right. There are truths here a politician in the job wouldn’t admit to. The stakes couldn’t be higher, chaos reigns across Europe and America is threatened, but the real source of the danger is unclear. The scenario is not entirely original but that matters little as the way the plot develops is. This feels like the way things might unfold in a real crisis.
State of Terror opens with Ellen beleaguered returning from a failed mission to South Korea. The Washington arena is already out for her blood and like any self-respecting president with an eye to his popularity, Williams is thinking of exercising his prerogative to throw Ellen under the bus. The buck always stops somewhere else. Then events change things.
Cut to Pakistan. Amir Bukhari loves his wife but this will be the last time they will ever see each other. The soldiers are at the door and they’ve come for her. There is one chance to escape before the place is surrounded and Amir tries to stall them. He pushes Nasrin out into the lane – it’s important that she survives. Dr Nasrin Bakhari runs for her life.
Back in the US, Anahita ‘Ana’ Dahir works for the State Department on the South and Central Asian Affairs desk. The workload is oppressive. As she reads through the emails she sees one that appears to be a collection of random numbers. Assuming it’s spam, as per protocol, she deletes it.
In London a bus explodes, it’s clearly a terrorist bomb, hundreds are slaughtered, but no one claims responsibility. Prime minster Bellington has no intelligence to go on.
Ellen begins working on theories and thinks that perhaps the carnage was to disguise a targeted operation, aimed at one person. With everyone reeling from what’s happened, another bomb goes off in Paris. The situation is rapidly escalating. That’s when Ana remembers the deleted message – the numbers aren’t random, they state the time and identify the bus routes for the bombs, and it appears one more explosion is about to happen. Ana has to get in to see Ellen Adams but no one is taking her concerns as a junior officer seriously. What nobody realises is that this is just the beginning and a far more sinister plot is afoot. Ellen, Ana and Dr Bukhari are thrown into a maelstrom.
The story is a cracker and avoids the obvious two-dimensional representations of global issues. The plotting is well crafted and a second novel has been set up if the authors choose to go that route. There are longueurs, though, and State of Terror is overlong and could have been sharper without damaging character or action. This is a change of pace for Penny as well as Clinton and there’s still room to grow as their collaboration develops. There are some well-timed allusions to the state of the nation under Trump’s regime and the current global picture.
Not a wholly successfully thriller but nonetheless very enjoyable.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars