The Emperor of Ocean Park

Stephen Carter
Knopf, 672 pages, $26.95

Former judge Oliver Garland—famously black, notoriously conservative—came this close to becoming the second black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, his nomination went down to humiliating defeat. Now the man known to his children as "the Judge" has suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving behind a damaged, tormented family and an ugly secret. And unless Garland's law-professor son uncovers the truth, he may soon share his father's fate.

It's the stuff of which legal thrillers are made, though it might seem a rather less promising plot for a serious novel. Never mind. Yale law professor (and CT columnist) Stephen Carter has given us both, in a flawed but dazzling literary debut.

Carter, famously black and notoriously devout, has made a name for himself as something of a traitor to his class. He's best known for defending the rights of religious people to participate in the great political controversies of our times—yes, even those right-wing Christian Coalition types. It's not the sort of message you expect to hear from the faculty lounges of New Haven, and so it should come as no surprise that Carter has refused to write anybody else's novel but his own.

His protagonist is Judge Oliver Garland's son Talcott, a wry, insightful introvert in the grand tradition of unlikely gumshoes. Bound up in his scholarly duties, fretful that the wife he stole from another man may soon be stolen from him, Talcott is little more than relieved by the death of his fearsome father. Talcott's sister, a former investigative re-porter with a passion for conspiracies, fancies that Oliver's heart attack may have been deliberately induced, but Talcott finds her easy to dismiss.

It's ...

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