Book Review: ‘State of Terror,’ by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

But don’t worry too much about keeping things straight. This is a romp. The authors have a great deal of 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 fist fight that breaks out in the White House? And what about the president, who seems kind of sketchy himself?

Credit…Dominique Lafond and Deborah Feingold

Like Agatha Christie’s elderly Miss Marple, who concealed her razor-sharp mind under a twittery exterior to outwit the parade of murderers overrunning her small village, Ellen uses her status as an apparently in-over-her-head middle-aged woman as a stealth weapon, never letting her ego get in the way.

“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 methods of 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 outwitting men 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. (Wait until you read about the nerdy code they use to verify their communications.) The scene in which Betsy, back in the State Department, hides the fact that she is illicitly searching for classified information by making it look as if she is hanging out and playing Candy Crush on her cellphone is completely charming.

Political junkies will relish the veiled insults to real-life people. (Ha, you think, as you read the authors’ stock disclaimer about all the characters being fictional.) There’s a shambolic “upper-class twit” of a British prime minister who hides his essential hollowness by spouting “random Latin phrases.” The Russian president is a ruthless, calculating 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. Sure, Dunn is charismatic, with an uncanny ability to exploit people’s weaknesses, but he is also an idiot. Even his closest associates called him “Eric the Dumb.”

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