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It seems like a long time since John Grisham first burst onto the scene - and indeed it is: over 20 years. Since then, he has churned out an almost endless procession of popular novels that invariably top the Best Sellers' Lists. There's no doubt The Racketeer will do the same, although whether it's justified in this case is another matter
When a federal judge is murdered along with his secretary, the FBI is under pressure to find the murderer. Malcolm Bannister, a lawyer sentenced to jail by the deceased judge, claims to know the identity of the murderer and will reveal it in return for his freedom and the opportunity to start a new life as Max Baldwin in the FBI's Witness Protection Programme.
This really does feel like Grisham has gone onto autopilot. It bears all the trademarks of a Grisham book: an exciting, fast paced plot, some legal mumbo-jumbo to make it vaguely plausible, a whole host of characters all trying to outwit each other, and so on. Yet, there's also some spark missing. For all The Racketeer is both readable and enjoyable, it's merely an OK Grisham book (and an OK thriller), rather than being up there with his best. In his author notes at the end, Grisham even admits that some of the crucial legal plot elements have absolutely no basis in reality, that he made them up to suit the plot and that he did very little research for the book. To be honest, it shows. It lacks those little convincing details that characterised the best Grisham novels, allowing a good story to be grounded in a legal reality.
It doesn't help that all the characters are so deeply unlikeable. Despite being the main character, I just could not warm to Malcolm/Max. He came across as manipulative, bitter, unpleasant and downright nasty; a man pursuing a personal vendetta no matter what the cost to anyone else. His treatment of and attitude towards some of the other characters (even though it might ultimately be understandable) is despicable and there was more than one occasion when I really hoped that Max's scheming would all come crashing down.
Grisham also tries a sleight of hand which doesn't quite come off. I can't say too much about this without giving away what happens, but it all felt rather too convenient and the author is clearly cheating, The best sleight of hand books or films (The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense) give the reader/viewer all the information they need, or at least hide it in plain sight. If the reader is clever enough, they will be able to put all these pieces together and work out the ending. Grisham doesn't allow that in The Racketeer. He takes the reader along a certain narrative path, but deliberately conceals some crucial facts so that he can spring them on you later and say "Ha! Fooled you. You've just read 300 pages of a novel, but actually everything you've read was based on inaccurate information."
Personally, I don't like that kind of sneaky trick. If an author (or filmmaker) is able to catch me out by springing a surprise, then I take my hat off to them and their clever plotting. When an author deliberately hides information in order to keep you the dark... well, that's cheating in my book.
On the plus side, with all his experience, Grisham knows exactly how to craft a readable thriller. Everything is stripped down to basic with no unnecessary verbiage. He doesn't waste time providing lots of facts and information; he simply takes what he needs and ignores the rest. He also doesn't get bogged down in minute detail about people, places or events. Again, he makes sure the reader has the information they need and nothing more.
This makes for a hugely readable book. Pages just fly by and you always feel slightly grumpy when real life gets in the way and makes you close the covers of the book and go and do something else. Despite weaknesses in the plotting and the characters, you are interested enough to keep reading to find out how it all pans out. And whilst he might cheat a bit with the ending, at least he tries to do something a bit different and doesn't make it crushingly predictable.
I almost hesitate to say this, because it sounds such a cop out. The truth is, you probably already know whether this is the book for you or not. Some people hate Grisham's glib, superficial style, others find it the perfect antidote to the hectic pace of modern life - a bit of mindless drivel to read before bed. Like so many of Grisham's books, The Racketeer is shallow, but slick; empty but entertaining. It might not be the author's greatest book, but if you've read his previous novels you'll get enough from this one. If you can't stand Grisham and his superficial style, this is simply another of his books to stay away from.
The Racketeer currently costs around £10 in either hardback or Kindle edition, but I've no doubt it will be coming down in price soon enough and appearing in second hand shops. Unless you're really desperate to read it, I'd wait until then.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2012
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013