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BOOK REVIEW

'Jericho's Fall' by Stephen L. Carter

The author of bestselling legal thrillers returns with an intriguing tale of espionage: Why does a dying spymaster summon his mistress to his bedside? To reveal a deadly secret?

July 29, 2009|Tim Rutten

Stephen L. Carter is a formidable legal scholar with a gift for turning out sophisticated, multilayered works of popular fiction.

"Jericho's Fall" -- an intricate spy thriller that proceeds at breakneck speed from mystery to revelation and back again -- marks a clear departure in his work, one that is likely to win him an even larger audience, and deservedly so. This is the sort of book Graham Greene used to call "an entertainment" and Greene's readers, who savored those novels' unselfconscious erudition and matter-of-fact moral complexity, as well as their engaging plots, are likely to feel themselves on familiar ground here.

As Yale's William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Carter has been a tactful but fearlessly independent explorer of territory sown with hair-triggered legal and social mines in books including "The Dissent of the Governed: A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty" and "Integrity." As a religious believer in an academic environment where secular skepticism is virtually a given and as an African American scholar among predominantly white colleagues, Carter's perspective is singular -- that, along with a deep empathy, translates into a gift for rich, convincing characterization. These qualities, along with a facility for believable plots that function on several levels, were skillfully deployed in his bestselling thrillers: the legally themed "The Emperor of Ocean Park" and the discerning novel of manners "New England White."

The plot of "Jericho's Fall" seems ripped from recent headlines involving the Central Intelligence Agency, the theories and morality of interrogation, and the wreck of elite Wall Street firms sailing too close to the ethical wind. Carter's novels always have preoccupied themselves as much with the families, friends and associates of significant figures as with the character ostensibly at the center of events. This new novel is no exception.

Living in exile

Jericho Ainsley is the scion of an old New England family, a former director of Central Intelligence, former secretary of Defense, former national security advisor, former partner in a high-flying private equity investment firm -- "former everything," as he is several times described. For 14 years he has lived in exile from the power he so relished because of a scandalous affair with a 19-year-old coed. As the narrative begins, he is dying of cancer and summons the now 34-year-old woman who was perhaps his great passion and also his undoing. "Perhaps" is the operative word here, because -- as events unfold over the next six days through the eyes of "the other woman," Rebecca DeForde -- the truth about both past and present will seem an increasingly malleable commodity.

In the intelligence netherworld that Jericho seems to inhabit so happily and instinctively, "Beck" -- as Rebecca is called -- soon discovers that "truth" always is a means to an end and not an end unto itself.

The story opens in prologue, with Beck fresh off a flight from suburban Virginia, where she lives, to the Colorado Rockies, where Jericho is dying in the remote mountainside mansion he built for them during their 18-month affair: "On the Sunday before the terror began, Rebecca DeForde pointed the rental car into the sullen darkness of her distant past. . . . The road was curvy and unkempt and, in mid-April, icy in places. Still, Rebecca drove very fast, the way she always did. She did not know whether she was running away or running toward. . . . By Friday Rebecca DeForde would be running for her life."

Carter has a good bit of fun with that sort of Saturday serial walk-off line, and another chapter ends: "The next day, she found the headless dog."

He also indulges the taste for subtle literary allusion that has so delighted readers of his novels.

Thus, Jericho's baronial house, Stone Heights, and the peaks that loom all around, brood over the story line in the fashion of Bronte's and Hardy's houses and landscapes. Similarly, biblical references abound. The closest town to Jericho's home, for example, is Bethel; the narrative's emotional subtext is illuminated by an introductory verse from the Book of Joshua: "And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand; and Joshua went unto him and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?"

Mysteries inside

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