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EDITIONS
Thursday, 6 June, 2002, 21:12 GMT 22:12 UK
The Emperor of Ocean Park
The Emperor of Ocean Park

An epic legal thriller by Stephen Carter which received the biggest advance ever for a first novel.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)


MARK LAWSON:
Several million dollars, the highest advance ever for a debut book was paid for The Emperor Of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter.

The author is a law professor at Yale and has written a thriller in which a leading African-American judge dies some years after scandal cost him a nomination to the Supreme Court.

His children come to believe that the heart attack which killed him may be a murder connected with his involvement in the Washington establishment.

A metaphor of chess represents the novel's theme of racism as black and white figures move around the board of American power. Ian Rankin, it's clearly financially a large advance, but is it an advance in crime fiction?

IAN RANKIN:
He said himself he would rather people thought about it first as a family, domestic book, and then a thriller. Very often with thrillers, they are well constructed but badly written. This is very well written but badly constructed.

It takes an awful lot of very clunky things that you would find in a big conspiracy thriller and connflates them, so you get the meeting in the graveyard at midnight, the wind-swept beaches, secret messages that don't mean what they are supposed to mean, gun chases, people getting their fingers cut off.

But that isn't what interests Carter. I got frustrated about the repetition of the arrangements, and wished he would get to the point and not end each chapter with a sudden revelation.

But he's good on the family. It's a great pitch, the idea of a well-off black family and the impact they are having on modern-day America. Some of the writing is good as well. It was leisurely, but well written.

MARK LAWSON:
You can understand why publishers got excited, as most thrillers are about the with white power establishment and this is a fresh subject.

TINA BROWN:
It is fresh and strangely exotic. In an odd way, the black experience has always been depicted, so often, as displaying this theatrical masculinity, or novels like Clockers which delve into the seedy edge of what is going on in the worst parts of America.

This treats the middle class blacks almost as new terrain. What's interesting to me is the way in which the rage is still there, but domesticated and tamed. It's experienced out of the corner of the eye, which I'm sure is how it feels if you're educated and affluent, in all the ways the character is in the book.

So you have this offstage rage which smoulders at the corners and edges of the narrative. I found that interesting to track. Like Ian, it wasn't the plot for me which was interesting. I found it portentous and lumbering. But I was hooked.

MARK LAWSON:
One of the questions he's addressing is to what extent a black establishment would copy the style and manners of the white establishment, and that's often there in the way they speak.

TOM PAULIN:
Yes, I think there is a lot of rage in it. A lot of guilt. I found the opening pages very haunting. It was a tragic feeling of grief, because it's also a life crisis novel of the kind we've reviewed many times.

Politically it gets interesting in that there's a Conservative side, then a liberal side, and they're both shown to be flawed and corrupt.

What worried me at the end, the rage, the grief and the anxiety, and the constant sense of what it's like to be part of the establishment upwardly mobile yet the person of colour, carrying all that weight of history. That gets abolished at the end. I won't reveal the ending. But that gets diminished.

In the end it fell into a Forest Gump novel, something for the left and something for the right and it ends up with a void.

MARK LAWSON:
Rosie Boycott?

ROSIE BOYCOTT:
I agree with Ian in that the plot is overcomplicated. By the end I couldn't think what they're doing in the cemetery.

I liked it for other reasons. I thought he handles a large range of characters from his family, from his children and wife and the people in the law school and they are brilliant. His marriage was brilliant.

I liked him very much as a guy who came from this strong Christian moral background, where you thought all these things were very serious to this family.

There is a wonderful scene when he's having his first row with his wife and they say, "Are you OK?" He said, "My father said we had to keep vets." You get a sense of a man trying to do right in a lot of difficult circumstances.

TOM PAULIN:
You believed in the marriage?

ROSIE BOYCOTT:
No, but I believed in his attempts to do the right thing and how he kept getting it wrong. I found him an endearing character. That kept you going through the novel, even when I was lost.

TOM PAULIN:
You didn't think he was too feeble?

ROSIE BOYCOTT:
No, there were moments when he beats up a guy he thought was his wife's love.

MARK LAWSON:
That's a cliche that is often repeated about seeing red. Do you understand why so much is paid, presumably it's the idea that this is a new kind of crime novel because of the African-American experience?

IAN RANKIN:
No, it's an old-kind of novel. What America looks for is a melding of two old things. They think they have got English ham meets Tom wolf, with a black twist. And it got the money because they got a bidding war together.

The movie came in quickly, because they don't want to lose out. Once that machine gets going, the figure goes up quickly.

MARK LAWSON:
You know both cultures. Do you think it will work well here?

TINA BROWN:
I do. It feels like a dispatch from a new world. It may feel too unfamiliar. I don't think there is the same amount of transaction between academia and politics and the power corridor between Boston and Washington.

So it probably won't have the same appeal. What is strong is family in the book and that may well communicate.

MARK LAWSON:
The Emperor Of Ocean Park is a Jonathan Cape hardback. Although modern in its concerns, that novel is very traditional in form, a single character telling the story in retrospect.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Panel
18 Apr 02 | Panel
30 May 02 | Panel
18 Apr 02 | Panel
30 May 02 | Panel
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