When Oliver Garland, a well-respected judge, dies—ostensibly of a heart attack—his daughter, Mariah, suspects foul play. Her brother, Tal, a professor of law at a university, is sceptical.

Oliver (whom Tal refers to as The Judge) was tipped to a Supreme Court judge, one of the two black judges. But at the hearings, he was repeatedly asked about his links with Jack Ziegler, a man who was involved in criminal activities (although nothing was proved). Jack is an old friend, and the Judge refuses to divulge the reasons for their meetings. He finally withdraws his candidature. The failure leaves him devastated.

At the funeral, Tal is approached by Jack, who keeps asking him about “the arrangements” that his father had made. Tal has no idea what Jack is talking about. Things get more complicated as Tal’s wife, Kimberly, is being considered for a vacancy on the federal court of appeals. She has worked very hard to get this far and is determined that Tal will not ruin her chances by stirring up any kind of controversy.

But then people around Oliver Garland start dying, and Tal has to put his career, marriage and life on the line to understand the cryptic message about chess that his father left him, knowing that of the three children, only Tal understood the game. He is helped—sort of—by Mariah, who has become obsessed with their father’s death, and as an ex-journalist, has a well-honed instinct on tracking down facts. But the more they explore, the more questions are raised.

Who is “Angela’s boyfriend”, the person who the Judge says has the answer? Who are the two men, purporting to be FBI agents, who interview Tal the day after his father dies? What is the oldest brother, Addison, not telling Mariah and Tal about the hit-and-run accident that killed their youngest sister? What on earth was Oliver Garland hiding?

This is a taut, beautifully written thriller and a glimpse into the lives of the privileged black community in the United States. It is lifts the lid on how Supreme Court judges are selected—the politics and manoeuvring behind the scenes. Stephen L. Carter can be scathing about the role of the Supreme Court: “it has been, for most of its history, a follower, not an agent, of change. … Like every other social institution, the Court has mainly been the ally of the insiders, a proposition that should come as no surprise, because only the insiders become the Presidents who nominate the Judges, the Senators who confirm them—or the candidates from whom the nominees are chosen in the first place.”

He also exposes the racism that permeates all layers of society. When Oliver Garland was being considered for the Supreme Court, someone remarked, “I hope Thurgood is keeping Oliver’s seat warm”, implying that there can be only one black judge on the Court at a time—not to mention the familiarity of using their first names to refer to both men. When Tal calls the police to report an attack on his on his campus, they almost arrest him, assuming that he was the assailant.

This is an intelligent, well-plotted thriller, and a delight to read. I would recommend it—I couldn’t put it down. And the best news? He’s written two more that form a loose trilogy!