At this point, it’d be easy for John Grisham to go on cruise control, churning out a new legal thriller a year. Anything penned by Grisham at this point is going to be a guaranteed best seller, but it’s nice to see that Grisham is still challenging himself and his readers on occasion with books that defy the conventional legal thriller mold.
The first half of Grisham’s latest offering The Racketeer feels like Grisham pushing himself into different territory than his standard The Firm model of storytelling. White collar criminal Malcolm Bannister is serving a ten year sentence in prison for a crime he didn’t knowingly commit. A small-town lawyer, Bannister was unwittingly part of a scheme to launder money and paid the price when the federal authorities decided to shut down the operation. Stripped of his law license, Bannister loses both his freedom and his family (his wife divorces him while on the inside). But while in a minimum security prison, Bannister (where he serves as librarian) hears about the murder of a federal judge and realizes he has information that could help solve the crime and get him released.
Or does he?
The first half of the story is an intriguing game of cat and mouse as Bannister slowly makes a deal with the government to be released from prison and put into the witness protection program to start a new life. Turns out there’s a Rule 35 that allows a prisoner to bargain for his or her freedom is he or she can help solve a crime from within the prison walls.
It’s once Bannister gets out of prison and back into society that the book takes an abrupt turn into the standard Grisham legal thriller area. Turns out there’s more to Bannister’s story than meets the eye and the final half of the book shows him keeping one step ahead of those who want to get rid of him for how he got out of prison and the FBI.
It’s a shame that the second half of the book lets down the promise of the first half. Yes, there’s a bit of Grisham’s own personal beliefs that are as subtle as a two-by-four in the entire book (I lost count of the number of times it’s pointed out how we spend more to incarcerate criminals than to educate our children), but at this point I’d honestly be surprised if Grisham didn’t include that in one of his novels. It doesn’t really hinder the enjoyment of the story but it does feel, at times, like he’s working too hard to have his characters make points for him.
Grisham is a solid author who isn’t content to rest on his laurels. I just hope next time he pushes himself, he does it for the entire book and not just a half a book.