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What the critics liked

State of Terror by Hillary Clinton

When Bill Clinton released his second thriller this June, he told Radio 4 he was “scared to death”. Why? His wife’s debut novel was coming out just a few months later. He was right to worry, says Sarah Lyall in The New York Times. Hillary’s thriller, State of Terror (Pan Macmillan £20), is a part sly, part sweet political page-turner. And it’s a triumph. “I’m going to award the prize for Best Clinton Thriller of 2021 to Hillary.”

The story follows Ellen Adams, the Secretary of State – the same position Clinton held under Obama – and Bashir Shah, an evil Pakistani arms dealer “intent on creating a hell on earth”. Like Bill, Hillary had a co-writer – bestselling crime author Louise Penny. But we can thank Hillary for the political parallels, says Mark Lawson in The Guardian. They’re enormous fun. In State of Terror, the US has recently been ruled by a Republican president, Eric Dunn. The “delusional” Dunn ran an administration of “near-criminal incompetence” and retired to play golf in Florida. The Russian president is a tyrant who runs rings around America and the British prime minister an “upper-class twit” prone to “entitlement and random Latin phrases”. The only difference is that the heroine is “more human, warm and amusing” than Hillary herself. Still, it makes for great reading. “The Clintons will surely be fascinating to future biographers and historians, who may find at least as many revelations in the couple’s fictions as in their memoirs.”

👰 🔫 🤵 In Bill Clinton’s books, the fictional Democrat president is a widower. Worryingly, says Ron Charles in The Washington Post, Hillary has killed off her heroine’s husband too. “Might be something to explore further in counselling.”

The dark side of Beatrix Potter

Most people think Beatrix Potter’s children’s books were full of fluffy animals and sweetness – but not Graham Greene. In 1933 he wrote an essay analysing Potter’s books in Shakespearean terms, from the early comedies to the later dark tragedies. The Tale of Mr Tod is the darkest, he thought: when Potter wrote it, she must “have passed through an emotional ordeal which changed the character of her genius”. Potter denied the idea. She had, she said, been suffering from flu, not emotional disturbance.

The Secret Royals by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac

Princess Diana was so convinced she was under surveillance by MI5 that she once “summoned a butler” to take up the floorboards in search of hidden microphones. She “found nothing”, says Roland White in The Sunday Times, but you can forgive her paranoia. As documented by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac in The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana (Atlantic £25), Britain’s royal family and intelligence services have long been intertwined. The first outsider to learn of Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 was a young MI5 officer who, acting on the instructions of No 10, had placed a wiretap on the Buckingham Palace phones.

The modern intelligence services emerged in the 19th century in an effort to “prevent Queen Victoria being assassinated”, says David Pegg in The Guardian. Victoria proved an adept spymaster – her daughter Vicky, who married the future German emperor Frederick III, was “one of her best sources”. These “vignettes” make for an entertaining read, says Matthew Dennison in The Sunday Telegraph. It’s a shame the authors lacked access to so much of the best material – the royals appear almost as protective over their secrets as the security services.

🕵️‍♀️ 😍 🍽 John le Carré would have turned 90 this week. He was a brilliant author, but I’m not sure about his taste in women, says Philip Hensher in UnHerd. Film director Mike Nichols once sat next to Margaret Thatcher at an official dinner and told her: “My friend John le Carré says you’re a very sexy woman.” “Well,” Mrs Thatcher replied. “I’m not.”

Vintage fiction: The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway’s final novel, The Old Man and the Sea, is his best, said his fellow American author William Faulkner when it was published in 1952. As a work of art, “time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us”.

The story is simple and short. In just 127 pages, it describes an ageing Cuban fisherman who catches an enormous fish, then loses it. It doesn’t sound like much, but “Hemingway has always excelled in describing physical adventure and the emotional atmosphere of it”, said Orville Prescott in a 1952 review for The New York Times. Do away with your preconceptions about Hemingway being melancholy, says contemporary reviewer Russell Cunningham in The Guardian. This is an uplifting novel. “It tells a fundamental human truth: in a volatile world… what sustains us, ultimately, is hope.”

As for the author’s thoughts? “The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish,” Hemingway wrote in a letter. “All the symbolism that people say is shit.”