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Acclaimed Canadian mystery writer Louise Penney, creator of the Inspector Gamache series, has teamed up with American politician Hillary Rodham Clinton to co-author a political thriller, STATE OF TERROR. As a novel, the result is fast-paced with a Byzantine suspense plot involving an arcane international conspiracy.
The characters are cardboard figures, with the possible exception of the protagonist, Secretary of State Ellen Adams. This heroine is a clear stand-in for Clinton that allows her to realize her political ambitions in ways that the world has not allowed. Without Clinton's celebrity, would STATE OF TERROR be noteworthy?
Probably not. Clinton and Penney's novel draws upon Clinton's political experience, particularly as U.S. Secretary of State (2009-13), to deliver a stark warning about the world's vulnerability to nuclear attack. At its start, the public distrusts Secretary Adams after she fumbles an important diplomatic mission to South Korea. She also faces internal critique. The President, Doug Williams has appointed her because he sees her as a political opponent and wants to keep his enemies closer than his friends.
When synchronized bus bombs go off in Europe, reminiscent of both 9-11 and the 7-7 London transport bombings, and Adams's son Gilgamesh (yes, really) is too close to one bus for Adams's comfort, she is galvanized to action. Through her well-placed adult children, she learns that a global conspiracy involving people from the Islamic world creates nuclear weapons which have a nonzero chance of being used against the United States. This is done in the immediate aftermath of the dysfunctional, inept presidency of Palm Beach dwelling, incoherent businessman Eric Dunn, alias "Eric the Dumb."
There is a kind of circa-2016 pantsuit feminism in play that gives Adams a dramatic arc. She is introduced as a politician in need of public confidence. An "eminence blonde" with "intelligent blue eyes" whose "good dress sense and Spanx concealed her love of eclairs," Adams looks in her mirror and sees "a tired, disheveled, spent woman." She also has a confidante or sidekick, Betsy Jameson, who apparently has no inner life beyond her service to Adams.
In tracing the conspiracy, Adams consults her media baroness daughter, journalist son, and his sometime girlfriend, a spy whose collaborative heroism suggests that political dynasties can be good things. Interestingly, the Dunn administration is never identified as the dynastic affair that the Trump Administration was. None of them have any qualities that indicate why they would understand the ground-level problems of ordinary Americans.
The plot is fast-paced but not suspenseful. At least, it offers no mysteries to those readers who spent 2016-20 imagining that an inept, compromised President might accidentally expose the world to unprecedented threats of nuclear violence.
STATE OF TERROR peddles the tired, ugly spectre of organized Islamic terror, providing no any insights about either Clinton or Trump that the global news media has neglected, and, though set post-"Dunn," failing to depict the world as it is in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic is never mentioned, and everyday life is very much as it was in Autumn 2019. America's culture wars are occasionally referenced, but the massive divides over vaccination, information literacy, and responsibility for public health simply do not exist.
Just as surprisingly, Black Lives Matter, a movement founded in 2013, either has not happened or occupies little space in Secretary Adams's mental attic. A passing mention of a Black woman protestor being murdered with a vehicle, like the late Heather Heyer, is a rare memorable acknowledgement of this ongoing struggle.
There is also no mention of the January 6th insurrection. If the book was completed before January 2021, it is understandable that even Penny and Clinton could not predict that domestic terrorism would attempt to overturn a U.S. election in the plain sight of hundreds of phone cameras.
In short, Penney and Clinton tell a rollicking tale of jet-setting intrigue that functions as a roman-a-clef, but they reveal nothing about the real-life figures and situations that inspired this tale that is not already widely known and also offer no visionary insights on the question of what ought to terrify the people of America or the wider world. If, however, you wish to visit an alternate present in which no mass trauma unimagined in 2016 has transpired, Adams's Air Force Three will take you there.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, September 2021
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