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Onyx reviews: The Brethren by John Grisham

This is shaping up to be a banner year for John Grisham and his fans. He currently has books on top of the paperback bestseller list (The Testament) and the hardcover list (The Brethren) and is in the early phases of releasing another novel serially through monthly installments in The Oxford American (A Painted House). While only the first installment of his serial novel has been seen so far, it shows a great deal of promise.

The Brethren starts out with more promise than many of Grisham's recent novels, as well. Grisham ventures into Tom Clancy territory with a story of political intrigue and espionage. CIA Director Teddy Maynard has selected Aaron Lake, a low-profile congressman from Arizona, to be the next president of the United States. Maynard is privy to inside information that indicates a dangerous resurgence of communism in the former Soviet Union and it is his belief that the US is ill-prepared to reenter the cold war. He intends to groom Lake as his hawk, a strong advocate of reaccelerating U.S. defense spending. The timing of the release of this novel, to correspond with the current presidential campaign is a nice piece of synchronicity.

A large part of the novel focuses on Maynard's manipulations as he pulls every string possible to subvert the normal nomination and electoral process to ensure that Lake is the Republican nominee and, ultimately, the next President. Maynard is not beyond resorting to orchestrating terrorist activity to frighten the American populace into throwing its support behind Lake's single-message platform: double military spending over the next four years. Lake enters the campaign late as a dark horse, but quickly becomes a front-runner when his message of doom-and-gloom seems eerily prescient in light of overseas events.

Running in parallel is the story of "the Brethren," three judges doing time at Trumble, a minimum security prison for white collar criminals. Their crimes are diverse: vehicular manslaughter, tax evasion, embezzlement. They are not doing hard time at Trumble, though. They convene a weekly tribunal wherein they hear and adjudicate the petty squabbles among other inmates. They do a tidy underground business attempting to get the prison sentences of others reduced.

They are also running "the Angola scam." They have placed a personal ad in a national gay magazine encouraging older men to respond to a fictitious younger man. An outside investigator helps them winnow out affluent and vulnerable men from the thirty or forty they have on the hook at any one time. Men that are able to pay tens of thousands of dollars to keep their secret life safely closeted.

Inevitably, the two story lines cross when Aaron Lake responds to the Brethren's ad. The judges do not know who their new target is, but Maynard becomes aware of the plot and uses his agency to intercede without Lake's knowledge.

This is where the novel begins to unravel. Maynard is the sort of man who can make people disappear without a trace, without a question. Yet, he seems stymied at how to handle the judges. The resolution to the dilemma is thoroughly unsatisfying. A reader would be forgiven for wondering if there had been a binding error in the book and that a chapter or two had been omitted from the end of the novel, a printer's error. The storyline of Lake's candidacy evaporates without resolution and the threat of the resurrecting Communist party in Russia is likewise abandoned. Tom Clancy, for all his weaknesses as a writer, would never have left a book up in the air like this.

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