A black pawn caught in a deadly chess match

Stephen Carter, a black law professor at Yale, understands the complex function of race in American culture. In 1991, he published "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," describing his conflicted attitude toward the policy that has helped and hindered black Americans like him. In these progressive times, it would be nice to imagine that color has nothing to do with our response to literature, but even the most colorblind readers will have trouble approaching "The Emperor of Ocean Park" without thinking of green.

This writer of social and legal commentary received a $4.2 million advance for his debut novel. But that's just the first unusual thing about his Grisham-esque story of a black law professor at a prestigious university who's caught in a thicket of intrigue and murder. It's an elephant – not just its size, but its strange collection of parts: It's a light thriller for the beach; a wicked satire of academic politics; a stinging exposé of the judicial confirmation process; a trenchant analysis of racial progress in America.

Carter can discuss the semiotics of legal diction and then end a chapter with corny cliffhangers like: "The Judge was murdered!" or "He hired a killer!" Imagine watching "Scooby Doo" while reading a thousand op-eds from the National Review.

No doubt his publisher, Knopf, hopes to have a "category buster" here, a book that appeals to so many demographic groups that it somehow returns their extraordinary advance. They're probably right. Carter has violated the Jim Crow laws of popular fiction (No academics allowed) and won everybody over.

The story opens at the funeral of Oliver Garland – the Judge, to everyone, including his three surviving children. We're to understand that this patriarch was a cross between Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork, a conservative black judge raised by Nixon, promoted by Reagan, and finally demolished by a brutal Senate confirmation.

Denied a seat on the Supreme Court, the Judge had retired to a partnership with a Washington law firm and made a fortune on the speaker's circuit. Talcott, the narrator, always found his father's politics something of an embarrassment, not so much because he was conservative but because he seemed to fan the self-satisfied piety and latent racism of his right-wing audiences.

Talcott barely has time to reflect on the Judge's death before trouble begins. At the grave site, his wealthy sister insists that she's going to track down their father's killer, though he died of a heart attack. Then a notorious gangster named Jack Ziegler emerges from the mist (really) to demand in his wheezy voice that Talcott tell him "the arrangements."

We do not know what "the arrangements" are. Talcott does not know what "the arrangements" are. By page 400, we still don't know what "the arrangements" are, and seeing "the arrangements" in quotations marks, even in italics, doesn't help. But find "the arrangements" we must, because Jack Ziegler has warned that time is running out – and people are dying, sometimes gruesomely, but always tastefully off-stage. This is, after all, the author of "Civility" (1998).

And so, Talcott finds himself a black pawn in his father's last and greatest chess match. With nothing to go on except an oblique note and a couple of pieces from the Judge's favorite chess set, he storms through the family's past, flying between Martha's Vineyard and Washington, D.C., looking for anything that might answer Ziegler's demand. Slowly, evidence of the Judge's true nature accumulates, forcing Talcott to reevaluate the man he resented and worshiped.

The search is complicated by his wife's pending appointment to the federal bench. Their marriage is suffering from the effects of her infidelity – and some truly hackneyed dialogue – but Talcott is determined to hang on to her and his beloved son. The last thing she needs, though, is a husband associated with the same notorious gangster who brought down her famous father-in-law. Or a husband who's making a nuisance of himself with the FBI. Or a husband who's about to lose his tenured professorship at the law school. But once he begins his investigation, Talcott can't stop asking dangerous questions – or delivering minilectures. As time runs out, no one will believe that he's on to something that touches the highest levels of the United States government.

Much is being made of this book's "rare" glimpse into the world of upper-class blacks. Last week, reviewers in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times praised the story's setting as though it were as exotic as science fiction. Imagine, they whispered, black Americans with Corian countertops and camel's hair blazers! (Wait till they catch "The Cosbys" on Nick at Nite!)

Yes, Carter's portrait of this milieu is captivating, but what's truly exotic about the novel isn't its racial content, but its spiritual content. When he goes to sleep or when he's dodging bullets, Talcott prays. Not only that, but he goes to church and reads the Bible. In other words, he's like the vast majority of people in America, the millions and millions who never appear in fiction, which has long insisted that religion be treated with withering irony, associated with sexual abuse, or distilled to New Age mysticism.

In the grand chess match of this novel, not every move is brilliant. Carter takes his time, sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating, and sometimes just playing as he arranges these white and black pieces in the complicated formations of American neighborhoods and politics. His trickiest move, though, is making a legal thriller so smart and so silly at the same time.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csps.com.

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