It’s been said over and over again: John Grisham certainly knows how to give us what we have come to anticipate. Over the years, each new Grisham novel arrives with a set of comfort factors to satisfy our expectations.
Young woman at a turning point in her life? Check. Slightly older man to help her reach her goal? Check. Cast of truly colorful secondary characters for local color? Check. All wrapped neatly into a page-turner of a legal thriller?
Well, not this time.
There’s not a courtroom to be found in “Camino Island.” There’s no crack in our current political or social system that needs to be shored up. When a handful of shots are fired, they are not really central to the plot. Not one of the main characters is in any life-threatening danger.
What’s going on?
What’s going on can only be described as John Grisham’s attempt at something new. There’s a touch of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man,” especially Nick and Nora Charles, Hammett’s free-wheeling married couple for whom social morés are worth only the occasional wink. There’s homage paid to the convoluted, amusing caper novel, novels like those of a master of the genre, a writer like the late Donald Westlake (“Dancing Aztecs” and any of the Dortmunder adventures like “The Hot Rock”).
John Grisham having a bit of fun? It’s possible; it’s possible.
In a heist worthy of the Dortmunder gang, the original handwritten manuscripts of each of the five novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald are stolen from Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Then things go south. Good guys try to find the loot. Bad guys try to find the loot. And not-so-good — or not-so-bad, depending on one’s perspective — guys try to find the loot.
Mercer Mann is a young novelist who’s taught enough college classes in her efforts to pay off her student loans. To make matters worse, she’s got writer’s block that won’t let up. She’s contacted by Elaine Shelby, a sophisticate of a woman working for a mysterious company that seems to be on the edges of respectability. If Mercer will go undercover, the company Elaine represents will pay off Mercer’s mounting student loans.
The object of the undercover work is Bruce Cabot, bookstore owner in Santa Rosa on Florida’s Camino Island. Cultured and very much at the center of Santa Rosa’s enclave of writers, Bruce Cabot might also be at the center of attempts to unload the stolen Fitzgerald manuscripts. “The rare book trade is a quiet business. . . . There is no registry, no one is looking, and many transactions take place in the dark.”
Only problem is, Mercer is way too attracted to the urbane Bruce, despite his wife Noelle, a business woman dealing in Provençale antiques.
That’s the setup.
So John Grisham moves away from the legal thriller on which he has made his reputation. Is he successful? For the most part.
Grisham readers will need to reconfigure their expectations. They will need to concede that Grisham is attempting a kind of caper novel and give themselves over to that. A big dose of the wickedly skewed Westlake humor, and John Grisham would have had a knock-out.
As it is, “Camino Island” is good fun, much more interested in plot than in character. A disappointment? Hardly. Let’s call it a good summer read. Let’s call it a tryout for a contemporary Nick and Nora Charles. Let’s hope there’s another book about the amoral Bruce and Noelle Cabot looking to cut loose.
Steven Whitton is Professor of English at Jacksonville State University.