State Of Terror
By Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny
Thriller/Macmillan/Paperback/493 pages/$32.95/Available here
3 out of 5
When two Clintons release political thrillers in the same year, you have to wonder if there isn't a little spousal competition going on.
Former United States president Bill Clinton has penned not one, but two tomes with thriller veteran James Patterson - 2018's The President Is Missing and this year's The President's Daughter, both featuring fictional presidents a little too testosterone-laden to be more than a wish-fulfilment exercise.
He should perhaps leave the thrillers to his wife Hillary.
The former US secretary of state has teamed up with Louise Penny, the Canadian author of the popular Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, for her fiction debut.
Here, too, is a familiar figure, a pantsuited politician whose contemporaries are quick to dismiss her as a frumpy middle-aged woman out of her depth.
Former media mogul Ellen Adams is fresh off a disastrous first outing on the diplomatic stage. She has been named secretary of state by the very president she campaigned against and is certain he is setting her up to fail.
But then a series of bus bombs goes off across Europe and Ellen is plunged into a race against time to stop a devastating threat.
She must thwart terrorists and unravel a conspiracy within the highest echelons of the US government - all the while being condescended to by mansplaining colleagues.
State Of Terror is a high-octane thriller with the eye-watering complexity of an onion - every time you think you have peeled back the last layer, there is another.
It is serviceably written for the most part, with a repetitious passage or overripe metaphor here and there.
The writers enjoy the odd literary reference - there are nods to the epic of Gilgamesh and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince.
One John Donne poem is overtasked with symbolic meaning: "When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more."
It is charming on first quotation, but after it is trotted out for the umpteenth time to herald yet more geopolitical despair, you want to cry "no more".
The book dishes out the level of detail one would expect from a former secretary of state - from tense conclaves between intelligence agencies to face-offs with the Russian president and the Ayatollah of Iran.
A lot of the conspiracy turns out to be due to damage wrought by the previous US administration. At one point, Ellen confronts a thinly disguised avatar of Mr Donald Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton to the US presidency in 2016. One gets the feeling she is settling some scores on the page.
What distinguishes State Of Terror from a mere vanity project is that it is not a one-woman show but an ensemble.
Ellen may be the one jetting around the globe bearding world leaders in their dens, but the plot makes room for a cast of others.
There is Anahita Dahir, the young foreign service officer who receives a coded warning about the bombs but is disregarded by her superiors until it is too late; and Betsy Jameson, Ellen's counsellor, a former schoolteacher with the mien of a 1950s housewife, whom the rest of the administration underestimate at their own expense.
Betsy is based on Clinton's real-life childhood friend Betsy Johnson Ebeling, who died from breast cancer in 2019.
For all the thrills and spills, it is the bond between Ellen and Betsy that gives the novel its strength - from their endearing private code for texting to their instinct to protect each other.
The genre could use more of this - middle-aged women, harried but competent, saving the world together.
If you like this, read: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (Transworld, 2020, $19.80, available here), an alternate history in which Hillary Rodham never marries Bill Clinton and later finds herself running against him for the US presidency.