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Thinly-veiled but enjoyable nonsense

Donald Trump should write a novel to at least give him the chance to deliver a bit of payback for this release by Hillary Clinton

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny (Macmillan, £20)

Politicians have long been drawn to the writing of popular fiction. Some practitioners have made it to the very highest office. Benjamin Disraeli was the author of numerous novels while, two decades after publishing The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan served as the Governor General of Canada.

State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny (Macmillan, £20)

More commonly, it is statesmen and women who have found themselves redundant (temporarily or otherwise) who discover that the lure of writing for the mass market is suddenly attractive. Iain Duncan Smith, mere months out of his old job as Tory leader, dashed off The Devil’s Tune, a slender volume set in the London art world which promised “a terrifying web of intrigue and deceit”.

Alan Johnson’s The Late Train to Gipsy Hill offered a likeable everyman with the sitcom name of Gary Nelson who encounters a beautiful woman on his evening commute who begs him for protection from the Russian mob.

Even our current Prime Minister, in an earlier iteration, delivered Seventy-Two Virgins, a sub-Kingsley Amis effort about a paunchy Conservative backbencher who thwarts, bumblingly, an Islamist atrocity. The politician at a loose end who turns, ham-fistedly, to the construction of popular narrative is generally a cheering reminder of the inherent difficulties of the craft. There’s often something so unintentionally revealing in the exercise: offering the purest guide as to how these people would like to be seen.

In America, things are done on a grander scale. The past few years have seen the reading public delighted by two thrillers written by President Bill Clinton and one of the most prolific writers of the age, James Patterson. Now we have State of Terror, a thriller written by Hillary Clinton with the assistance (one imagines, the substantial assistance) of the novelist Louise Penny.

Leaving aside the inadvertent light it throws on the competitive nature of the Clinton marriage (Bill gets a slightly cool mention in the acknowledgments for having given “useful suggestions, as always”), the result is at once workaday and almost compulsively intriguing.

She’s also routinely the smartest person in the room, often sighing in exasperation at the dunderheaded men

The set-up is familiar from dozens of episodes of 24 or Homeland. The Western world is rocked by a series of terror attacks which seem to be escalating — from explosions on European buses to something which could threaten America itself. A new administration (Democrat, of course) struggles to cope, still dealing with the legacy of their predecessors in the White House, a bunch of rascally Republicans.

There’s much staring at computer screens and bleeping phones and people going to high alert and the President being warned of an imminent threat to his life. All perfectly enjoyable if you like that sort of thing. Yet it is the real protagonist in all this who is the USP of the project: the newly-appointed but unflappable Secretary of State, Ellen Adams.

In almost every way, Ellen is a ringer for Hillary. She’s said to be “medium height, trim, elegant … A good dress sense and Spanx concealed her love of eclairs.” Her makeup is “subtle, bringing out her intelligent blue eyes while not trying to hide her age”.

She’s both a clear-eyed pragmatist and a dewy patriot (“How she loved this country. This glorious broken beacon.”). She’s also routinely the smartest person in the room, often sighing in exasperation at the dunderheaded men by whom she’s surrounded before concluding that, “she didn’t need their approval or their respect, just their attention”.

Clearly, she could do much better than the current President (a flailing, ineffectual cove by the name of Douglas Williams). Fate has decreed, however, that her job is to advise and steer rather than to lead directly and it is into this role that she throws herself whole-heartedly (whilst also keeping a thoughtful eye on the desk in the Oval Office and the sequels such a promotion might allow).

Amusingly, there’s often no serious attempt at fictionalisation at all. The British Prime Minister makes several cameo appearances, “his hair askew, as always”, mangling Latin phrases like a JCR bore. In a detail which might please Number Ten, however, Clinton and Penny eventually have Adams conclude that the premier is “far more intelligent than she’d thought possible”.

Naturally, the authors’ real ire is reserved for a certain Republican ex-president, here christened “Eric Dunn”. No blow is too low. There are references to Dunn’s weight (“he was large … immense in fact”) and to his questionable sense of personal style. In a jab that raised a smile, we discover in his Mar-a-Lago like bolthole that he owns “an Olympic-size pool, with a fountain in the middle. Making it both impressive and useless for actual swimming.”

Amusingly, there’s often no serious attempt at fictionalisation at all

The authors are so relentless about poor Dunn, however, that one eventually grows rather sorry for him as he’s first lambasted variously as “inept … dreadful and dangerous” before, ultimately, being lightly patronised (“Eric Dunn was foolish, but not, she believed, a lunatic.”). In a scene towards the end of the novel, Ellen meets Dunn one on one, and, through a combination of guile and wisdom, subtly bests him. It’s pure wish fulfilment fantasy but curiously satisfying to behold — like watching private therapy play out in the public sphere. It is by some distance the best scene in the story.

It hardly seems worth itemising the novel’s stylistic and structural infelicities for these are not elements for which the book will be bought. Nonetheless, there are few chapters which are cliché-free (silences are always eerie and brows furrowed; hearts pound or skip a beat) the point of view roves maddeningly back and forth over a fistful of characters and the inciting incident doesn’t arrive until we’re 30 pages in.

Attempts at literary flourish emerge as odd flashes of bathos: “he still looked like a cherub, but a cherub who’d swallowed a monster”. Best just to file the whole thing under enjoyable nonsense and move on. At least, that is, until the next politician takes a tilt at the bestseller lists. Donald Trump should write one. It would give him the chance to deliver a bit of payback, if nothing else.

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