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Onyx reviews: The Racketeer by John Grisham

"I am a lawyer. I am in prison. It's a long story."

Thus begins John Grisham's most recent legal thriller, which is something of a departure. For one thing, the book is not inspired by any real-life events, a fact that Grisham points out in the afterward. Grisham claims that, instead of doing a lot of research, he simply made things up when he didn't know the truth. The book's tone is also lighter than usual. For the most part, the human stakes are not enormous. There is a murder, but it happens off screen and is only important because of the opportunity it provides to the protagonist.

Malcolm Bannister is a small town Virginia lawyer, or at least he was before he inadver­tently became caught up in a wide net cast by overeager federal investigators. One of Bannister's clients turned out to be a drug lord, and some of Bannister's actions on his client's behalf were interpreted as money laundering. He was never aware that he had committed a crime, he was coerced into making a confession and is flabbergasted when he is sentenced to ten years in federal prison. He is also stripped of his license to practice law, so his opening statement is, in fact, a lie.

Compared to many institutions, the federal prison camp where he is incarcerated is more of a resort. There are no gang fights, no fences or gates, and few of the guards are armed. Though that might make his long sentence seem more palatable, it's prison nonetheless. He's the only black man in the institution convicted of a white collar crime. The opening section of the book details what being "behind bars" means for Bannister. His wife divorced him not long after he went inside. He will miss ten of the most important years in his six-year-old son's life. The stream of friends who visited him at first has become a trickle. Only his father, who is convinced that a 100-page indictment means Bannister was guilty of something, comes regularly.

His status as a (former) lawyer allows him to move between the two main factions within the prisons, what he calls his white gang and his black gang. He provides legal services and has managed to gain early release for some of his fellow convicts.

He's in the middle of his stint when the book opens, and it's clear that he's starting to go stir crazy. The five years ahead of him look like an eternity. When he hears about the murder of a federal judge, he contacts the warden, saying he has information that could lead to the killer's apprehension. Because the murder victim is so high profile, and the case has gone cold, people are willing to listen. He exploits Rule 35, which allows for his release if he provides information leading to the arrest of someone else. 

Bannister is suddenly in a position of power, and he milks it for all it's worth. He will get a new identity and facial reconstruction surgery, he will be relocated and set up with enough money to last until he can get on his feet. It will mean that he's no longer able to get in touch with his father and other family members, but that's a deal he's willing to accept.

As everything begins to fall into place, readers may begin to suspect that there's something else going on beneath the surface, and they'd be right in doing so. Bannister has bigger plans, and the novel switches from an "innocent man behind bars" novel into a caper. As a lawyer, Bannister knows all the legal loopholes that he can use in his favor, and he knows when the authorities don't have anything they can use against him. He may have been caught off guard once, but never again. The fact that he is a former Marine also works in his favor from time to time.

Seeing his convoluted and risky plan fall into place is a delight. Grisham has concocted a fabulous plot. Readers never get a glimpse of the big picture until the end. However, it might have been better if Bannister had encountered any serious complications along the way. His plan, which at times relies on some rather tenuous circumstances to go his way, never seems like it is in danger of failing. Neither he nor his co-conspirators are tripped up along the way. Everything falls into place. The federal agents who he plays like a fiddle aren't exactly stupid, but he still manages to run circles around them.

This is a common element in Grisham's previous caper novels. In books like The Firm, the protagonists' lives are a series of complications that conspire against them until the very end. He puts the screws to those characters until it seems like they have no way out of their predicaments. He should consider using some of those plotting skills in books like The Racketeer so it doesn't seem like the deck is stacked in Bannister's favor from the outset.

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