Tangle of former lovers and a national security threat

Writer Stephen L. Carter is also a Yale law professor. Writer Stephen L. Carter is also a Yale law professor. (Michael Lionstar)
By Chris Bohjalian
August 9, 2009

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Sometimes when I’m reading a novel by Stephen L. Carter, I feel a bit like that kid who has the X-Men comic book hidden behind the geometry textbook.

Carter is a distinguished law professor at Yale University. His debut novel, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,’’ was a poignant and powerful tale of a judge whose Supreme Court aspirations collapse in scandal and whose life ends in mystery, and his cuckolded son who suddenly is seeing conspiracies everywhere. Carter’s work has about it the penumbra of literary refinement, even if the books that followed have been a little heavier on plot and a little lighter on character development. Nevertheless, I seek out Carter’s novels and turn the pages with enthusiasm.

His new thriller, “Jericho’s Fall,’’ has perhaps the most Byzantine plot twists yet and enough red herrings to feed every guest at a mystery writers’ gala. I enjoyed it immensely, even if there were moments when I thought the plausibility meter was way off the charts.

The basic premise? Jericho Ainsley, former CIA director, former secretary of defense, former executive at the prestigious Wall Street private equity firm of Scondell, Bloom and Notting, is dying of cancer at his massive estate in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. He is old and tired, seemingly delusional, and he summons to the compound Rebecca “Beck’’ DeForde, the 32-year-old with whom he had an affair when DeForde was a Princeton sophomore, and Ainsley was doing a little teaching. Their affair didn’t last two years, but it resulted in Ainsley’s divorce and fall from political grace, and DeForde’s dropping out of Princeton and traveling around the world as an emotionally wounded, underachieving stoner. Beck is now a midlevel executive and merchandizing manager at a retail chain, divorced, and raising her 7-year-old daughter on her own. She is still an underachiever, but at least she reads Edwidge Danticat.

When Ainsley summons her to the mountain retreat that he had bought 12 years earlier as a love nest for the two of them, she presumes it is merely to say goodbye. And so she goes, leaving her child with her mother. Instead of bidding farewell to Ainsley, however, Beck finds herself being recruited by ex-CIA executives, writers, investigators, local police officers, and a US senator. All of them have different motives, but the same goal: to persuade her dying ex-lover not to implement his special plan, “Jericho Falls.’’ Their fear is that Ainsley has grown paranoid and set in place a chain of dominoes: If someone should ever assassinate him, all of the secrets he kept as both a CIA director and Wall Street rainmaker will be revealed. As Philip Agadakos, former chief of staff for the National Security Council and the other half of the team Bob Woodward christened the “A & A’’ boys, explains it to Beck, “[Ainsley] even had a cute little code for his project. JERICHO FALLS. Get it? He’d say, if Jericho ever falls, everybody’s walls will come tumbling down. Meaning, no secrets, anywhere.’’

Beck is at the house - which seems more and more to her like a madhouse - with Ainsley and his two daughters, one an Episcopal nun who used to be a CIA interrogator, and the other a movie producer. The nun seems to have dark secrets of her own, and Ainsley keeps encouraging Beck to ask the woman why she left “the family business.’’ The movie producer is pretty straightforward, especially with her contempt for Beck: She blames the young woman for breaking up her parents’ marriage.

As Beck wanders through the rooms of the palatial house, she discovers that Ainsley has fortified it with more than mere surveillance cameras and alarms: He’s hidden handguns; he’s created descending fences between the rooms to isolate invaders; and there are massive crates in the locked and sealed garage hiding . . . something. Meanwhile, her cellphone is ringing, despite that she has no coverage at the house, and whenever she answers it she finds either static, snippets of conversations she had with the CIA chief long ago when they were lovers, or (much worse) her young daughter cooing about the present that grandma has given her, the child’s voice always abruptly cut off.

Then there is the dead dog she finds near Ainsley’s house, its head blown off by a shotgun and its remains left for Beck to find. It isn’t simply the senseless cruelty that unnerves Beck; it’s that the animal is precisely the same breed as the one that her little girl has just been given back home.

Carter meticulously ratchets up the tension and, as with his past books, I found myself devouring it the way some readers motor through tales of vampire lust and Vatican corruption. I’m not sure how much of “Jericho’s Fall’’ is possible or even makes sense. Characters occasionally make decisions that seem driven more by plot than by reason. Yet it’s all great fun - and I couldn’t help but smile as I watched a CIA director being stalked for a change.

Chris Bohjalian is the author of 12 novels, including “Skeletons at the Feast,’’ “Midwives,’’ and “The Double Bind.’’

By Stephen L. Carter ,br> Knopf, 355 pp., $25.95

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