The Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter is not what it looks like it is going to be. It has a cover on it like a typical political thriller. And the book descriptions support that supposition with lines like "a suspenseful story of secret societies [and] political intrigue" and "the machinations of spies and assassins."
But political thrillers aren't usually narrated by two-time National Book Award winners or have a plot that stretches over 20 years. The hero is Eddie Wesley, a prominent writer and member of African-American high society during the twilight of the Harlem Renaissance. Yes, Wesley solves a murder mystery, hunts for his missing sister, and tries to discover the secrets of an enigmatic clandestine society, the Palace Council. But he also hangs out with Langston Hughes, writes eight or ten serious novels and a scathing critique of the Vietnam War, and spends decades analyzing the sociology of black intellectuals while mooning over his lost girlfriend.
There is violence and intrigue aplenty, with a plot involving J. Edgar Hoover, Cold War spies, all the Kennedys, Nixon, Vietnam, domestic terrorists, and an elaborate, but never fully explained, plan by the Palace Council to control it all. Someday. There are so many moving parts it is hard to follow them all, and several key pieces never fall into place.
But it is not the shaggy plot that makes the book worthwhile, it is the opportunity to consider Mid-Century American culture and politics from the perspective of African-American academics, politicos, and social mavens. This atypical point-of-view makes The Palace Council stand out from others in the genre.