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Onyx reviews: The Broker by John Grisham

Rarely does John Grisham reach a banal middle ground where he is entertaining but irrelevant. The Broker represents such an achievement. The novel isn't issue-driven and has little tangible tension, even though the CIA, FBI, Mossad, Saudis, Russians, and Chinese are all hunting the protagonist. More than anything else, The Broker is a good advertisement for the northern Italian travel industry.

Joel Backman is the broker, a Washington lawyer, lobbyist and vendor of political access. Greed ensnarled him in a scheme involving a trio of young Pakistani hackers who gained control of a previously undetected network of high-tech surveillance satellites. When his plan to sell access to the highest bidder unraveled, people started dying. Joel pled guilty in a deal that sent him to a safe prison for twenty years in return for having all other indictments-including one against his son-dropped.

Six years later, Joel is a shadow of his former self. Government agencies want to know and contain his secrets. He is kept in solitary confinement and fed gruel in a cold, bleak cell. Sensing an opportunity, the CIA encourages an outgoing lame duck president to pardon Joel. They relocate him to a foreign country, planning to announce his location to foreign governments who might have been involved in the satellite fiasco to see which one kills him first.

That's mostly just backstory. The bulk of the book takes place in northern Italy, where Luigi, Joel's handler, coaches him in his new life. Joel gets a crash course in Italian to flesh out his new identity as a Canadian returning to his birthplace. His apartment is bugged and wired; even his government-issued clothing contains transponders. Though he is technically a free man, he's in constant danger and no one must discover where he is, he's told, except Grisham never conveys much of a sense of threat. Luigi tries to keep Joel on edge, afraid for his life, but this is mostly subterfuge to keep him on a short leash.

What makes The Broker worth reading is the story of Joel's indoctrination into northern Italian culture. He learns such morsels of wisdom as the fact that Italians never partake of cappuccino after 10:30 am because the rich drink would interfere with subsequent meals. Each day, Luigi escorts Joel to a different place for lunch or dinner, and the multi-course, almost ritualistic, meals are described in sumptuous detail, so full of smells and tastes that readers may be tempted to take a break to visit their local Italian restaurant to sample some of the entrees.

His Italian-language coach, a beautiful but mysteriously aloof woman named Francesca, takes him around the city to describe the history and beauty of its many sites as part of his instruction. The book could almost be renamed A Year in Bologna, except that Joel only manages two months in the historic city before he decides to break out of what is really just another kind of prison to redeem his character. Joel is likeable enough, though a sketch of his shady past would probably make him seem more like a villain than a hero. As with all Grisham protagonists, he is incredibly resourceful and capable of outwitting seasoned intelligence agents.

The final section of the book is a classic Grisham chase, but once Joel's on the run there's little doubt that his trajectory will take him out of harm's way. The Broker is light entertainment, though possibly high on calories.

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