Stephen Carter goes to church regularly. He teaches at an Ivy League law school. He instructs his kids to avert their eyes from inappropriate scenes in music videos--and he actually believes them when they say they do. He would make a perfect Agatha Christie villain: he's the last one you would suspect.
You wouldn't expect him to write a dense, dark legal thriller either, but Carter is the author of The Emperor of Ocean Park, to be published this week with an astronomical first printing of 500,000 copies. Carter is appallingly modest about it all. "I never dreamed the reception would be anything like what happened," he says. "I assumed it would more or less drop without a ripple."
Carter isn't the first lawyer to go over the wall into fiction, but he may be the most distinguished. A third-generation jurist, Carter clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1980, and he went on to become the first tenured black professor at Yale Law School. At 47, he is the author of seven books on such weighty matters as affirmative action and the relationship between law and religion. So what's he doing slumming with private eyes and crooked cops? "I wanted to write a novel from the time I was very small," Carter confesses. "Most of the major characters came to me almost full blown 20 years ago." He tapped out Emperor late at night, working from 10 to 2 so as not to steal time from his teaching. The law has made him a verbal perfectionist, even in conversation: every other sentence starts with "Let me clarify that by saying..."
But even a perfectionist--especially a perfectionist, maybe--has his dark side. The Emperor of Ocean Park begins with a corpse: Oliver Garland, a prominent black judge, is found dead of a heart attack at his desk. At the height of his career Garland was up for the Supreme Court, but his bid was scuttled by rumors of underworld ties, leaving him angry and embittered--he's the Clarence Thomas who might have been. Garland's son Talcott is a moody, middle-aged law professor saddled with a flagging career and a failing marriage. Growing up in the shadow of his famous failure of a dad has made him a fizzing cocktail of racial and Oedipal rage.
The fun begins when Talcott realizes that his father's case isn't quite closed. At the funeral a sinister billionaire confronts him about some mysterious "arrangements" the judge made before his death, of which Talcott knows nothing. A white chess pawn--the judge was a chess fiend--is delivered by an unknown messenger. The priest who delivered Oliver's eulogy turns up dead, his body grotesquely tortured (Carter might want to tell his kids to avert their eyes at this point). As in all good mysteries, the key to the present lies in the past, and to find it, Talcott must delve not only into his father's thwarted nomination but also into the death of his sister, who was killed in a car accident when she was 15.