Mutually assured destruction meets the dawning civil rights era in legal scholar/novelist Carter’s (Yale Law School; The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, 2012, etc.) latest novel.
Margo Jensen constantly has to prove herself, especially when she’s seated before someone like professor Niemeyer, who, though fearsome, teaches a course on conflict theory that is “among the most popular on the Cornell campus.” Margo, as her name suggests, is a woman, which lowers her categorically in the professor’s estimation. She's also African-American, which seems not to faze him, certainly not when he helps recruit her to the cause of a nation scrambling to keep up with and beat the Soviets. So it is that Margo jets off to Bulgaria, where she runs afoul of the security apparatus but proves herself sturdy enough to serve as a very much behind-the-scenes intermediary between president and premier, world leaders tasked not just with running their respective countries, but also containing the war factions that clamor for a showdown. Carter is particularly successful at creating an atmosphere of nearly oppressive suspense: As the story unfolds, everyone, it seems, is implicated, even the snotty BMOC who pesters Margo to test the mattresses in the fallout shelter with him. And despite the unlikeliness of the scenario—half a century ago, an African-American traveling either behind the Iron Curtain or outside the kitchen of the White House would attract more attention than Margo does—Carter does a very good job of placing the reader as fly on the wall. We’re treated to all kinds of spectacles from that viewpoint, from Bobby Kennedy clashing with Curtis LeMay to spy vs. spy action in the field (“Ainsley hit him hard in the groin and, as he doubled over, harder in the chin”) that features a welcome veteran of other Carter adventures.
The tale grinds too slowly at turns and runs a touch too long, but Carter delivers a satisfying historical thriller with some nice cliffhanging moments.