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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, November 2, 2013

An Innocent Man Pulls a Triple Cross

By John Grisham
352 pages
(Dell, October 23, 2012)
Sold by: Random House LLC

Malcolm Bannister, 43, a partner in a small town law practice, got scooped up in the federal racketeering investigation of a crooked Washington, D.C. lobbyist and ended up "drawing a dime" -- a ten-year prison sentence -- in a federal prison camp.
At worst Bannister's crime was picking a bad client, but his innocence has been little comfort to him as the first half of his sentence dragged by.

But Bannister knows who is behind the murder of a federal judge -- only the fifth such slaying in U.S. history. He hopes to trade the killer's identity for his own early release through a Rule 35 proceeding, which allows a federal prison to be freed for providing the authorities with substantive help in solving another crime.

All Bannister has to do is convince the feds he isn't running a scam on them, provide them with the killer's name, and change his own name, face, and work history to stay alive long enough to testify. Complicating these already difficult tasks is the fact that early in the maneuvering, Bannister has ratted out Quinn Rucker, a former inmate friend, and Rucker wants Bannister's liver on a stick. This is no small matter: Rucker is a member of a drug trafficking family that apparently has excellent sources inside the FBI, Justice Department, Marshall's Service or Bureau of Prisons.

Are you getting this all down? Good. This is the set-up of The Racketeer, a John Grisham thriller that has one of the most skillfully managed double and triple crosses in recent crime fiction. As a tale of suspense, it is first rate, and the reader is kept guessing whether Bannister can pull it off -- and how -- until the book's final pages.

I have to admit that I didn't start out as a Grisham fan. The Client  was the first thriller by the lawyer-turned-crime- author that I read and at the time the plot struck me as far-fetched and the characters weak and poorly drawn.

But his next couple of his stories seemed workmanlike, fast-paced and entertaining, and while I didn't exactly become a Grisham aficionado, I began to understand why his fans are legion and at least nine of his stories have formed the basis for popular motion pictures.

Now that I have read The Racketeer, you can list me among the author's most ardent admirers. In terms of plot, alone, The Racketeer is simply one of the cleverest thrillers I have read in a long, long time.

John Grisham

There isn't much that can be said about the book without spoiling it for readers. The one secret that can be divulged is the fact that Bannister is factually innocent of the money laundering charges that put him behind bars for five long years: his name was simply picked out of the Yellow Pages by the crooked lobbyist who was the FBI's real target, and his unwitting involvement in the financial transactions that led to his conviction for money laundering was completely incidental to the lobbyist's real crimes.

But Bannister's wrongful conviction -- which cost him his wife, son and livelihood -- provides a solid motivation for his complicated revenge. In prison he works in the camp's library and advises inmates (and the occasional prison staffer) as a jailhouse lawyer. Both occupations give him the contacts, tools and knowledge he needs to set the book's intricate plot in motion.

In the course of getting his revenge against the system that screwed him, Bannister wins his release, then travels to Florida, Virginia, Antigua and other locales in the Caribbean, sets up a phony motion picture company and goes through identities the way some men change socks. He also manages to trick Nathan Cooley, an ex-con who plays a pivotal role in the scheme, into entering Jamaica with a counterfeit passport, a handgun and enough cocaine to earn him a twenty-year prison sentence.

At this point, the average reader will be completely flummoxed about why Grisham has created this convoluted and time-consuming subplot; never fear: it ends up being a major part of the machinery of the story, and engineers the payoff Bannister has been planning all along. If you figure out what that payoff is before the end of the book, you are a lot more alert than I was.

There are a lot of different ways to manufacture thrills in a suspense story and The Racketeer falls back on the tried and true gimmick of making it appear that the likeable protagonist is getting in over his head: as assassins seem to be on the verge of tracking him down, he burns up precious time by dallying with Vanessa Young, a women he met when she was visiting a relative at the prison camp; more alarming yet, he trusts her and puts her in a key role in his revenge scheme; he seems to spend days setting up his fake motion picture production outfit when he should be finding a place to hide from the dope dealer he has betrayed; he travels; he connives; he gets revenge for his own betrayal by the legal system he serves by engaging in a series of double crosses. At every step he seems closer to being recaptured by the feds or capped by drug dealers.

It's a hell of a ride!

Not that The Racketeer is flawless. It suffers little errors here and there that had me scratching me head and rolling my eyes. At one point, for example, FBI hotshot Victor Westlake (whose name may be a sly tip of the fedora to the late Donald E. Westlake, a veritable one-man mystery factory) reminisces about the good old days he spent chasing embezzlers and counterfeiters.

Sound the warning buzzer here, fans: the Secret Service, part of the U.S. Treasury Department, chases manufacturers of funny money. Counterfeiting is one area well outside the FBI's area of responsibility.

But little clangers like this are acceptable, given that Grisham acknowledges in his afterword that he did no real research for the book and that "almost nothing in these pages is based on reality."  

A perhaps bigger problem is the imprecise way in which Grisham handles the time frame of the murder of U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Fawcett, the jurist whose assassination sets the entire plot in motion.

Sometimes it seems that Fawcett was slain in the distant past, sometimes only a few weeks earlier. If Bannister knew about it years earlier, why does he wait until the period in which the novel transpires to take action? And if it happened more recently, how did Bannister learn the chain of events in the past that led up to it? 

Alas, the answers to these questions were never made sufficiently clear to me, and they leave a gaping hole in the plot.

I hasten to add, however, that negative points like these did not ruin the story for me. In fact, I hardly noticed them while I was reading, in large part because I was more interested in finding out what was going to happen next than I was in poring over what had already taken place.  I suspect most readers will feel the same -- and will take just as much pleasure from The Racketeer as I did.

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