Cover image of "State of Terror," the new Hillary Clinton novel coauthored with Louise Penny

Secretary of State Ellen Adams loathes her boss, and the feeling is mutual. She’s convinced he had named her to the post only to find a way to destroy her reputation. And when he torpedoes a vital diplomatic mission to Korea that is intensely embarrassing to her, she knows she’s right. The fractured relationship poses immense complications for her when all hell breaks loose in Europe, and she is forced to swing into action. Massive terrorist bombs have exploded in London, Paris, and Frankfurt. No one has taken credit. Thus begins the new Hillary Clinton novel, State of Terror, coauthored with Louise Penny.

Now, the Secretary and her advisor, Betsy Jameson, must use all the resources at their disposal to unravel the meager clues that will help her identify the terrorists. This starts a cascading series of events that subjects leaders throughout the West into a “state of terror.” And they will find that the reality behind the bombings is even more terrifying than they’d imagined.

A surprise to the last

Like reviewers for the New York Times, NPR, and the Washington Post, I approached this book with trepidation. Books by celebrities always flash red danger signals for me. But this novel, the first Hillary Clinton has written, surprised me. It proves to be suspenseful to the last. And it would hardly be uncharitable to credit veteran mystery novelist Louise Penny for much of the book’s success. After all, writing a suspenseful novel requires a set of skills that a politician is unlikely to acquire in decades at the pinnacle of public attention.

State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny (2021) 512 pages ★★★★☆

Image of a nuclear weapon under construction, like those in the new Hillary Clinton novel
Persons unknown building a nuclear weapon. Are they North Korean? Pakistani? Terrorists, like the characters in the novel, State of Terror? Image:

A complex story that unfolds around the world

State of Terror tells a complex story that takes readers around much of the world. Secretary Adams alone visits major cities from London to Tehran to Islamabad to Moscow. And we learn of other action taking place in Iran, Pakistan, Germany, and Afghanistan. The cast of characters is also large, including not just Ellen Adams and Betsy Jameson but Ellen’s adult son and daughter, her chief of staff, the President and his chief of staff, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And those are just the most prominent Americans in the story. We also meet Iranians, Pakistanis, Russians, Canadians, and several other world leaders. Yet it all hangs together nicely.

Real-world models for the characters

Every character in State of Terror is fictional. But many are based on real-life personalities. The two leading characters, Secretary of State Ellen Adams and her best friend and counselor, Betsy Jameson, are modeled on two of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends. Former California Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, who served under Clinton as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, was the model for Ellen Adams. And Betsy Jameson was based on Clinton’s life-long best friend, Betsy Eberling. Both women died in 2019, as did Clinton’s younger brother, Tony. “The combination was devastating” to Clinton and helped motivate her to collaborate with Penny on this novel.

The world leaders portrayed in State of Terror also have their real-world counterparts. Former US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran all appear in speaking roles on the novel’s pages. And the authors eviscerate both Trump and Putin. Trump’s depiction is unsparing as “an arrogant fool, a useful idiot for the far right” whose policies had subjected the United States to great danger. Putin, in turn, is portrayed as not just vicious, conniving, and corrupt but as the head of the Russian mafia.

A fun and entertaining book

It’s clear that Clinton and Penny had fun writing this novel. For the former Secretary of State, the exercise offered a juicy opportunity to take revenge on the man who was elected President in her stead. Her depiction of “former President Eric Dunn” is devastating. But Louise Penny had her fun, too. In the book’s closing chapters, some of the pivotal action takes place in the Quebecois village of Three Pines, the setting for the long-running series of detective novels she set there. And some of her familiar characters appear in the story as well. It’s all fun not just for the authors but for readers as well.

About the authors

Image of Hillary Rodham Clinton, coauthor of the novel
Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016. Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia

Hillary Rodham Clinton (1947-) was the sixty-seventh US Secretary of State. She served in office from 2009 to 2013 after eight years as a United States Senator from New York and eight years as the First Lady of the United States. She wrote or coauthored eight nonfiction books before State of Terror, her first novel.

Image of Louise Penny, coauthor of the new Hillary Clinton novel
Louise Penny in 2009. Image: Ian Chrysler via Wikipedia

Canadian author Louise Penny (1958-) has built a successful career with her detective novels—eighteen strong as I write—featuring Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. They’re cozy mysteries set in the tiny fictional village of Three Pines in Quebec. The novels have won her the Agatha Award for best mystery novel of the year five times.

For more reading

For one of the several novels by Louise Penny that I’ve also reviewed, see A Fatal Grace – Armand Gamache #2 (Detective fiction by Louise Penny that rivals Scandinavia’s best).

For an excellent novel about Hillary Rodham Clinton, see Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (In this alternate political history, Hillary Rodham doesn’t marry Bill Clinton).

You might also enjoy my posts:

For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels. And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here.

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