In this new political thriller, a familiar pantsuited figure saves democracy
October 25, 20219:41 AM ET Heard on Fresh Air
State of Terror, by Hillary Clinton and Louise PennySimon & Schuster
I approached the package with caution. The book inside could be trouble, big trouble. Literary collaborations usually are and this one by two women of achievement gave off warning signs of being a high-profile gimmick gone wrong.
Don’t open the book, I told myself, but I couldn’t resist late night readings, undercover, so to speak. And before I knew it, I’d lost my grip and fell headlong into the frantic feminist fantasy of State of Terror, a thriller by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.
Let’s debrief: Clinton and Penny are personal friends — a friendship that was sparked by Clinton’s admiration for Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series. In the wake of Clinton’s loss of the 2016 presidential election and Penny’s loss of her husband, who suffered from dementia, they decided to collaborate on a political suspense novel.
The two women have said in interviews that they wanted to have some fun during a difficult time and to pay tribute to the power of female friendship. Call me naïve, but the resulting thriller, though uneven, bears out their claims.
State of Terror is what Graham Greene famously called “an entertainment.” Searching for fine writing or complex characters here would be as pointless a quest as searching for the Maltese Falcon. Instead, like most political thrillers, State of Terror is a plot-driven concoction, featuring a classic race against time to out-maneuver international terrorists and homegrown traitors hellbent on turning the United States into a Russian satellite state.
The twist here is the gender of the action figure who’s barking commands and sweating her mascara off in the effort to save American democracy. Not only is she female, but she’s a late-middle-aged secretary of state named Ellen Adams.
At Adams’ side is her trusted counselor and best friend from childhood, a woman named Betsy Jameson. Together, they outwit a cabal of evil potentates, minions and dictators as they ricochet around the globe on Air Force Three. Call it, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits.”
State of Terror is a giddy read, particularly for women of a certain age; let’s say, us women of an age old enough to think that the just-concluded run of Daniel Craig as James Bond lost much of its mojo when Judi Dench as “M” departed the series in Skyfall.
Suspense — let alone political suspense — is still pretty much a white man’s game. Lauren Wilkinson’s recent Cold War thriller, American Spy, is one of the rare novels in this genre starring a woman of color— and one who’s a professional. Most often, when female characters occupy a lead role in suspense, they’ve stumbled into it. That’s especially true of World War II thrillers starring female spies and assassins: Think of Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett; Fall from Grace, by Larry Collins; and Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black.
Dench’s “M” was that rarest of animals — an ambitious professional older woman wielding power. And, that’s what makes State of Terror intriguing, particularly in its second half when Penny’s trademark one sentence paragraphs intensify the pace of the suspense and Clinton’s fictional alter ego goes la mano a mano with two of her real-life foes: Putin, here called Ivanov, and a former American president, here called “Eric Dunn.”
There’s always been a score settling potential inherent in mystery and suspense fiction; for instance, the late literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun routinely targeted her Columbia University English Department colleagues in her Amanda Cross mysteries. Here, at the end of an unsuccessful fact finding meeting with Dunn in his Palm Beach palace, Adams lets her nemesis know who’s in charge:
“Thank you for your time.” [Adams] held out her hand, and when [Dunn] took it, she yanked and pulled the immense man right up to her, so that their noses were touching and she smelled his breath. It smelled of meat. …
“You’ve made it clear time and again that nothing happened in the White House without your approval. … If there is a disaster, it will be dumped at your big gold door. I’ll make sure of that. …”
All thrillers are fantasy stories — fantasies about power and ingenuity. In State of Terror, an older woman draws on her expertise, a reserve of female solidarity, and the magic of a tool James Bond never scored — a pair of Spanx — and she manages to avert disaster. As thriller fantasies go, this one feels a lot more plausible to me than most.