Hey, this is my 100th post on Crime Pays! Is anyone still reading? Cheers!
I go a little crazy shopping when I am on vacation. Somehow every single thing seems like a marvelous souvenir of a perfect trip and so price be damned, buy I will. One place I often spend excessive amounts of money for no good reason is the apparently famous Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Martha's Vineyard. Now, this is a good bookstore, particularly strong on nautical history which is not something you see in a small bookstore, and of course with an excellent and extensive selection of books about the Island, and by local authors or authors with local connections, of which there are many. That's usually where I end up buying. But I don't know that it is a great bookstore, so am not sure what the hype is about, other than being an independent bookseller (which we applaud of course) in an actual place. It's not massive, and sometimes the folks at the counter can be a bit impatient (although, who can blame them by the end of the summer season, I guess).
Anyway, last summer was no different, and in addition to a book of MV trivia ca. 1998 and some other stuff, I picked up a copy of The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002; Vintage Contemporaries 2003) by Steven L. Carter. Noting the above that I am a sucker for local stuff wherever I am, and that the summary on the back promised a murder AND a mysterious puzzle, it was an obvious choice.
The Emperor turns out to be less a work of crime fiction, and more a meditation on the mysteries of the human mind as it is warped by family dynamics. Our Hero, which he isn't really but the story is told from his perspective, is Talcott Garland, law professor at an unnamed elite Eastern law school (NOT Yale, where Carter teaches in real life, but sharing some general characteristics). Talcott, or Misha as he is known to his intimates, is the son of the recently deceased Honorable Judge Oliver Garland, who, we learn over the first part of the story, saw his Supreme Court nomination crash and burn thanks to revelations of his relationship with an international crime boss. Following the disastrous nomination, the Judge's politics turned increasingly reactionary, and he became a darling of the Right. The story opens with his death, and the gathering of his somewhat troubled but all highly successful in their own way children. The Garlands, members of the "darker nation," as Talcott puts it, are the elite of that group - privileged upbringing in Washington, the best schools, summers on the Vineyard from time immemorial. After the funeral, various characters start pestering Talcott about "the arrangements" that the Judge left supposedly with Talcott - except that he has no idea what anyone is talking about. Did I mention that his wife has been nominated for a seat on a Federal court? That complicates matters, too. The long story is that of his discovery - with many twists and turns and layers and character surprises - of what "the arrangements" are, and what they mean for the many characters both savory and un.
If I were writing a back cover blurb for this book I would call it a sprawling family saga. The story is at best unwieldy. It unfolds on several levels at once, including Talcott's personal life, relationship with his siblings and his dead father and various other family members, the whole crazy dynamic of faculty at an elite university, and did I mention that there is a whole chess theme going on (the dead Judge and Talcott bonded only over their love of and skill in chess)? I might have dropped it in confusion but for several elements:
1. Despite the many characters, and Carter's awareness that he is dealing in stereotypes of a kind, they are all distinct and thoughtfully drawn. Carter has a gentle sense of humor, and Talcott's private asides to himself in the midst of even the most dramatic situations suggest a comfort with and acceptance of humanity's basic imperfection. There is a lot of rumination going on here - SOP in first-person narrative I guess - and it works, mostly. Talcott is trying to do the right thing for everyone, wrestling a bit with some leftovers from a dysfunctional family life, and his way of dealing with it is to alternate between dropping out and becoming paranoid. But he recognizes this, and is always questioning.
2. Loved the law school faculty insider stuff. If you work in a University, a lot of this will be deliciously familiar. Carter notes afterwards that none of it draws on his happy career at Yale, but he sure does nail this topic!
3. Apropos of no. 2, who doesn't like reading about a place they know well? All the MV scenes ring true, although the Garlands and we have different experiences. Still, I very much see Vinerd Howse in my mind's eye, and appreciate the joy with which Talcott always approaches the Island.
"I have always love the crossing, and today's journey is no different. As the Cape falls farther and farther behind, I can feel my fears and confusions fading with it, receding in importance as the Vineyard looms ever larger off the starboard bow, first a distant gray-green shimmer, next a dreamlike vision of trees and beaches, now near enough to make out the individual houses, all gray-brown and weathered and beautiful. I gulp down its image like an alcoholic tumbling gratefully off the wagon as the ferry thrums steadily through the waves, a few dozen automobiles waiting in the hold to explode onto the Island in a noxious rush of joy." (191)
It is good that this is sold at the Bunch of Grapes, as it would make a fine beach read, see that sprawling note above, I feel like I've barely touched on all the topics this gets into. The ending satisfied mostly - the big mysteries are solved - but a number of the characters just sort of fade out. I guess this is supposed to be part of Talcott's moving on, but one wonders. Still, I guess that's what happens in real life, we just keep going on, don't we? Carter certainly does - he's written several more works of fiction, including at least one that carries a character from The Emperor forward. And he's published in his field of law pretty widely as well. It will be interesting to see if his other novels are as introspective.