“State of Terror” by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny; Simon & Schuster/St. Martin’s Press (494 pages, $30)
When politicians write novels, I usually try to avoid reviewing them.
With a handful of exceptions, my critical response to such books has been: “Don’t quit your day job.”
“State of Terror” is a big, turbocharged, breathtaking exception: It’s one of the best political thrillers I’ve ever read.
The politician-author here, former first lady, senator and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is not a novice writer. She’s published seven bestselling books of nonfiction and children’s literature.
For her first foray into a novel, she had the good sense to team with a co-author who’s one of the top crime fiction writers working today. Canadian Louise Penny’s 17 novels about Montreal police detective Armand Gamache are international bestsellers, and with good reason: Penny is a terrific writer. (Gamache fans will find some Easter eggs in “State of Terror.”)
The two were friends before this book project was created, a friendship born of grief in the aftermath of Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election and Penny’s loss of her beloved husband to dementia. A mutual friend, Betsy Johnson Ebeling, introduced them, and she has her own role in the book.
The two women co-wrote most of “State of Terror” from pandemic isolation, Clinton in Chappaqua, New York, Penny at her home outside of Montreal.
The result is what readers might hope for but not often get: a thriller that combines the firsthand, insider knowledge of a former Secretary of State with the writing skills of a master of suspense. Bonus feature: lots of wicked humor.
(You might recall that Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, has written a couple of political thrillers with megabestselling author James Patterson. They’ve done yeoman work, but the ladies outshine them.)
At first glance, the protagonist of “State of Terror,” Ellen Adams, might seem like a thinly veiled Hillary Clinton — her hairdresser dyes her locks a specially formulated color called Eminence Blond, and there’s a running joke about her showing up for important events at the last minute with windblown hair and muddy shoes.
But there are important differences between the former Secretary of State and the fictional one, one being that Ellen is a widow. She has two adult children, a daughter she’s close to and a son from whom she’s estranged.
An even more salient difference is that Ellen isn’t a politician, or a diplomat. Before she was tapped for the Cabinet, she was head of an international media empire: “television networks, an all-news channel, websites, and newspapers.” (Her daughter has taken over that enterprise.)
Ellen is smart, well-informed and well-connected — but she is starting an enormously important job without any experience at it.
That’s not an accident. She’s been appointed by the new president, Douglas Williams, even though the two are bitter enemies. During the primaries, she threw the weight of her media outlets against him and in favor of his opponent. Now he’s named her Secretary of State, and she’s trying to decide whether he’s assembling a Lincolnesque Team of Rivals or setting her up for spectacular failure.
As the book begins, she’s leaning toward the latter, as she races home from a diplomatic debacle in South Korea to attend Williams’ first State of the Union address (for which she arrives late, in muddy shoes).
Any new administration has a learning curve, but this one has a much steeper than usual climb. The United States is coming off “four years of chaos,” and Williams has “inherited a bureaucracy crippled by, populated by, the incompetents of the previous administration.”
That would be the administration of former President Eric Dunn, who after a term of “ego-driven and uninformed and downright dangerous” decisions is now restlessly retired to Palm Beach. (Some characters in this book are barely veiled at all.)
But Ellen, Williams and the rest of the administration are going to have to get up to speed fast. Not long after the State of the Union, a bomb blows up on a bus in London. The next day, a bomb blows up on a bus in Paris. Dozens dead, hundreds wounded. Strangely, no one claims responsibility.
A young woman named Anahita Nahir, a lower-level employee at the State Department, received a cryptic text the night before the first bombing, a string of numbers sent from a blocked source. Her supervisor shrugged it off as spam, but she wrote the numbers down before she deleted it — and she soon realizes they are related to the bombs, and to one yet to go off. She knows she has to get the information to Ellen.
That is very much only the beginning. Ellen will spend the rest of the book hurtling around the globe from one city to another, racing the clock to find out who is behind the bombings. Everything seems to lead to a ruthless arms dealer named Bashir Shah, “a one-stop shop, a kind of Walmart of weapons, selling not just the materials but the technology.”
Shah (with whom Ellen has a history) was imprisoned, but now he’s not, and he seems to have access to nuclear materials. The truly scary question is: Who are his customers?
Every new discovery is more terrifying than the last, and what adds an extra layer of dread is that we know Clinton actually held this job. As each appalling detail emerged, I found myself wondering whether it had really happened.
One of the strongest elements in the book is its depiction of Ellen’s longtime friendship with her counselor, Betsy Jameson, who looks like Beaver Cleaver’s mom but has a much saltier vocabulary. They met on their first day of school, Ellen the cherished daughter of a happy family, Betsy even at age 5 the survivor of horrific abuse. “From that day forward, Ellen and Betsy were almost inseparable. Ellen taught Betsy that goodness existed, and Betsy taught Ellen how to kick attackers in the nuts.”
They’re still supporting each other, telling each other nerdy jokes and occasionally saving each other’s lives. In a White House, and a wider world, where it’s often impossible to tell unlikely friends from even more unlikely enemies, their solid friendship is essential.
“State of Terror” keeps up a relentless pace, with more twists and turns and cliffhangers than I could count. Yet unlike any other thriller character I can think of, Ellen doesn’t punch anyone or shoot anyone or throw anyone out of an airplane. With her, it’s all brain work.
All of it rushes toward one question: Which should we fear more, international terrorism or the homegrown kind?
But don’t worry. It’s fiction. Isn’t it?