Yale Law School professor (since 1982) and best-selling novelist Stephen L. Carter is just as accomplished as the prize winners and social elites whose adventures he chronicles in such volumes as Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White.
He once clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, has written for many major publications on such subjects as law and justice, religion and spirituality, and currently is a columnist for the magazine Spirituality Today.
Carter’s third novel Palace Council, which he’ll be reading from and discussing Saturday at the Southern Festival of Books, blends mystery and historical analysis with examination, romance and suspense.
But while Carter admits that he’s known many people whose lives and personalities mirror those of the main characters in his novel like Edward Wesley Jr., Kevin Garland, or Aurelia Treene, he adds he’s never created a story or based any particular character on a specific person.
"My primary goal has always been to tell a good story," Carter said. "The stories and characters are my creations. Certainly in my teaching and travels I’ve come across people who may share some of the traits that you see in my characters. But the motivation for all the novels was to put together a compelling story. Everything else has fallen in place, the things like exploring different political movements, discussing key figures in history, or following the characters through history."
Carter actually moves back a bit in time with Palace Council. It covers the years 1952-1975, and Treene, who was a septuagenarian in New England White, this time is in her 20s and a new arrival in Harlem. She’s the woman that main character Edward Wesley Jr., an overachiever who’s already won two National Book awards, wants to marry.
Unfortunately Wesley hasn’t earned the type of money that Treene considers mandatory for any permanent marital situation, and she eventually instead married Kevin Garland, the son of a Wall Street type. But he soon turns moody and erratic, often disappearing for long stretches and then returning in disarray, muttering about the incompetence and problems caused by his associate Phil Castle.
But what he doesn’t know is that Castle is now dead. Wesley discovered his corpse, and that’s only one of the mysteries he has to solve. The other concerns the location of his missing sister Junie, a brilliant graduate from Harvard Law School, who disappeared right after graduation. How both these events come together is among the many unusual and interesting things about Palace Council.
Carter constructs an elaborate storyline that works in many other issues and subjects, from Watergate to the influence of upper class, little known black societies.
"The period in the book was a critical one in so many ways to why we’re at a certain stage in America today," Carter said. "Also these were things that I hadn’t really seen covered in the many novels and articles about the period that I’d previously read. I wanted to write about people that haven’t been covered and publicized often, and these are African-Americans with clout, money, expertise and experience. Still, all these things to me are secondary. I really believe that people who read the novels will find them entertaining. I’m not opposed to them learning some things, but I really hope they enjoy them."
(Stephen L. Carter reads from and discusses Palace Council Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. in the House Chambers during the Southern Festival of Books).