by John Grisham; Doubleday, 2012; 343 pages, $28.95
We pick up a John Grisham novel knowing that we’re gonna be fine. Grisham has, after all, mastered the modern legal thriller.
“The Racketeer” contains the standard Grisham elements, the ones that tend to comfort us with their familiarity: rogue member of the legal profession, general and decidedly visceral discontent with the country’s legal system, colorful denizens of the contemporary South, hair-raising escapades in climes tropical. If the novel is coasting a bit by not messing with that formula, at least we read on knowing it’s gonna be quite a ride.
The “racketeer” of the title is Malcolm Bannister, a 43-year-old ex-Marine who also happens to be a disbarred lawyer (Grisham element No. 1) “convicted of a crime [he] had no knowledge of committing.” Bannister tells us, exasperated tongue firmly in cheek, that at the Maryland Federal Prison Camp, “I happen to be the only black guy serving time for a white-collar crime. Some distinction.”
Well, actually, that situation will serve Bannister well. Seems Federal Judge Raymond Fawcett and his mistress have been killed in a backwoods cabin. It’s a sort of locked room mystery for the FBI. There’s no sign of breaking and entering, no sign of a confrontation of any kind.
And Bannister knows both the name and the motive of the killer.
He eventually strikes a deal with the Feds (Grisham element No. 2) and reveals all. Seems there’s a criminal who walked away from the minimum-security prison (Grisham element No. 3) he shared with Bannister. Seems said criminal paid Fawcett a large bribe. Seems the deal went south during the trial with Fawcett on the bench. Seems revenge was exacted on Fawcett as payback.
And there are 200 pages to go, pages that include plastic surgery, the Federal Witness Protection Program, a Jamaican prison and villas in Antigua (Grisham element No. 4). But there is also a bit narrative dexterity as Grisham effortlessly moves between first and third person. The effect is almost that of a documentary, for Bannister’s narrative seems isolated even more from the bulk of the novel.It’s all a rollercoaster, to be sure. But there is still that comfort factor, our confidence that John Grisham knows how to deliver.
So what if “The Racketeer” delivers at break-neck speed? We know we’ll be able to catch our breaths at the end of the ride, just like Malcolm Bannister does at the end of his — and from the terrace of his Antiguan villa yet.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University