It’s easy to bring a dose of armchair psychology to “State of Terror,” the new geopolitical thriller by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.
The book follows on the heels of “The President’s Daughter” — the second joint effort by former President Bill Clinton and James Patterson — which is all testosterone and swagger, full of gritty operatives rushing into impossible situations using their wits and massive weapons. “State of Terror” addresses similar subjects — terrorism, treachery, blackmail, government malfeasance. But while Bill’s characters speak loudly and wave big sticks (they are men), Hillary’s listen intently and use their keen understanding of human nature to outmaneuver their adversaries (they are women).
In “State of Terror,” nothing less than the future of the world is at stake. As the novel begins, Ellen Adams, former proprietor of an international media empire, has been appointed U.S. secretary of state by Douglas Williams, the condescending president whose candidacy she had opposed. Exhausted and disheveled after flying back overnight from a disastrous trip to South Korea, she arrives late for Williams’ State of the Union.
“What in God’s name are you wearing?” snarks the secretary of defense, as Ellen rushes into the House chamber. “Have you been mud wrestling again?”
Things get much worse. A bomb goes off in London, another in Paris, a third in Frankfurt.
Blame falls on Bashir Shah, a Pakistani arms dealer “intent on creating a hell on earth.” Shah was secretly freed from prison with the blessing of the previous U.S. president. He hates Ellen, whose media company once laid bare his crimes in a devastating documentary; he may have even killed her husband using untraceable poison.
The bombs spark a high-speed diplomatic race: Ellen flies around meeting world leaders in an effort to prevent the detonation of nuclear devices hidden in three American cities. The plot is overstuffed, and it can be hard to keep track of the complicated cast, which includes Ellen’s daughter, now in charge of the media company; a foreign service officer with countless secrets; and the press secretary for the previous, Trumpian president.
The authors have fun throwing up red herrings. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence suspect each other of treason. Who is lying? Who will win the fistfight that breaks out in the White House? And what about the president, who seems sketchy himself?
Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Ellen uses her status as an apparently in-over-her-head middle-aged woman as a stealth weapon.
“Maxim Ivanov stood in the middle of the room, not moving. Forcing Ellen to go to him, which she did. These petty gestures, meant to insult, had no effect on her,” the authors write. Ellen knows that men like Ivanov, the Russian president, “would always undervalue and underestimate women.”
Nor does Ellen blanch when the mansplaining British foreign secretary makes an incisive point about the Mossad, the Israeli national intelligence agency. “He seemed to have forgotten that Ellen had said exactly that just a few minutes earlier,” the authors write.
Ellen gets help from Betsy Jameson, her oldest friend and a State Department counselor, who serves as her cheerleader, adviser and partner-in-stealth. Their relationship is delightful. The scene in which Betsy, back in the State Department, disguises her illicit search for classified information by pretending she’s playing Candy Crush is completely charming.
Political junkies will relish the veiled insults, too. There’s an “upper-class twit” of a British prime minister who hides his hollowness by spouting “random Latin phrases.” The Russian president is a ruthless tyrant who ran rings around the previous American administration.
Clinton and Penny reserve their darkest shade for former President Eric Dunn, a preening, bombastic one-termer who shredded the country’s reputation and retreated to Florida to sulk, play golf and plot his return. Dunn is charismatic, with an uncanny ability to exploit weaknesses. But even his closest associates called him “Eric the Dumb.”
If Clinton is slyly settling old political scores, she is also, sweetly, celebrating women’s support of one another, and I was moved by the notes paying tribute to the late Betsy Ebeling, one of Clinton’s oldest friends and the inspiration for Betsy Jameson. The ending leaves open the possibility that this is the beginning of a beautiful fictional friendship.