You already know that State of Terror, Hillary Clinton’s new novel, written in collaboration with the best-selling author Louise Penny, is going to be awful. You want to know why. If the novel is a corpse then let this critic be the coroner.
To be fair, State of Terror offers as much literary competence as you would expect from the sort of weighty thriller you’d pick up in a train station if you’d forgotten your charger. Penny is a pro. The pacing is respectable. The characters are numerous enough that you forget that none of them are especially well-developed. There are stylistic howlers — a Russian dictator has “a coldness that would have given Siberia a chill,” which makes no sense at all — but what do you expect?
What makes this book entertainingare its politics. You can no more separate art from ideology in the case of State of Terrorthan you can a man from his vital organs. It involves a smart, plucky and perpetually underrated female secretary of state (I wonder who helped inspire that?), a dim thug of an outgoing president (again, who knows?) and a conspiracy to topple the US government led by sinister right-wingers in league with swarthy terrorists and a cold, calculating Russian strongman who is “much smaller” than the main character expects (your guess is as good as mine).
Anyone expecting deep political insights from the worlds of Washington and international politics will be disappointed. This novel was written with a level of political naivete that makes you wonder how much Clinton was actually involved. We learn, for example:
“Five Eyes was the name for an alliance of intelligence agencies from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US. Ellen had not heard of this organization of English-speaking allies until she’d become secretary of state.”
The Five Eyes is such an obscure and secretive organization that even a boneheaded reviewer like me has heard of it. Had Ellen Adams, who had spent decades “building and running an international media empire that now spread across television networks, an all-news channel, websites, and newspapers”, never seen reports on the alliance in such marginal outlets as the New York Times? You almost await the revelation that there exists a mysterious, little-known body named the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Then again, Adams — or the authors — has no wish to focus on the shadier sides of American statecraft. The US, that “broken beacon”, was in this novel governed with decency and openness until the awful President Tru—, er, whatever his name was messed everything up. Savor this:
“Secretary Adams, on entering as SecState, had quickly realized there was no such thing as the Deep State. There was nothing ‘deep’ about it. Nothing hidden. Career employees and political appointees wandered the halls and in meetings and shared bathrooms and tables in the cafeterias.”
The book ends up being a kind of fever dream of the sort of people who considered themselves part of the “Resistance.” The Russian leader — Padimir Vlutin or whatever he was called — is finally reduced to a quivering wreck by charges of pedophilia. (As far as I can tell, once evidence of these charges extracts the information Adams needs, she fails to pursue them — a genuinely interesting example of diplomatic amorality.)
Female genius is forever being overlooked. A British politician states a banal fact about Israeli intelligence operations and seems to have “forgotten that Ellen had said exactly that just a few minutes earlier.” This sort of social critique might be more compelling if it was not penned by a woman who obtained top jobs in politics time and again — or, indeed, if was not centered around a media mogul who was made secretary of state for no obvious reason.
At the end of her acknowledgements, Clinton writes:
“This is a work of fiction but the story it tells is all too timely. It’s up to us to make sure its plot stays fictional.”
Let us be fair to our liberal friends and acknowledge that their fears are not entirely without foundation. Donald Trump is a man with an ample enough ego but if he could mount a coup he might soon be declaring it the biggest, best and most beautiful coup in the world. But the paranoia, real or opportunistic, that leads Clinton to frame a right-wing dirty bomb attack on US soil in prophetic terms, combined with the pettiness that leads her to grouse about alleged diplomatic slights, are unique to establishment liberalism in its senescence.
The authors discuss friends and family members they lost around the time of writing the book, who helped to inspire its characters. I have no cause to doubt their sincere intentions. Still, Stacey Abrams’s surprisingly able thriller While Justice Sleeps apparently took her twelve years to create. Given that the idea to write a book together was apparently pitched to Clinton and Penny in spring 2020, we can assume it took them less than one — throughout which Clinton also ran a podcast and became chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast. Perhaps if there is a sequel, they should spent a bit more time developing the story. I’d never discourage former politicians from devoting themselves to their pastimes.