Grisham, John. The Brethren.

NY: Doubleday, 2000.

This is an odd sort of a novel for Grisham. At first, there are two separate narratives which are very different from each other. The first, superficially reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen, involves three judges doing time in a minimum-security federal prison in Florida.

One, a liberal California Supreme Court Justice, was railroaded by his conservative political enemies. The second, a U.S. District Judge from Texas, got drunk and killed two young hikers with his car in Yellowstone (making it a federal matter). The third, a redneck Justice of the Peace from Mississippi, got caught scamming bingo receipts. Now they comprise the unofficial bench in Trumble Prison, hearing disputes between other inmates (balancing one set of expected lies against another) with the warden’s acquiescence, because their efforts help maintain peace and stability.

The three spend most of their time, however, on a very different activity, writing come-on letters, purportedly by “Ricky in rehab,” to men on the outside. Gay men, still in the closet, who have money. The idea is to gain their confidence and then threaten to blow their cover if they don’t pay handsomely for secrecy. And so far, they’ve taken in a couple hundred grand. They’re aided in this endeavor by a semi-worthless lawyer in the community who picks up their mail at a couple of dead drops, smuggles the letters in and out of the prison, and manages their secret account in the Bahamas — all for a one-third share, of course. So that’s the first side of the story and it’s kind of fun in a wince-producing way as you wait to see who all will be able to get away with what, and for how long.

But then there’s the other plot-line, which is deeply cynical and rather scary. The long-time director of the CIA, Terry Maynard, is concerned about the imperialist resurgence planned by a new Russian strongman, and to combat it (to “protect the American people”) he approaches a pro-defense congressman from Arizona named Aaron Lake (whom few people have ever even heard of) and offers to put him in the White House — if he will promise to double defense spending in his first four years. Lake is conservative but basically honest, living a quiet, reserved, and carefully non-scandalous life — but he’s still a politician and he jumps at the chance. The primaries have already begun but Maynard knows he can buy the election. The nation’s defense contractors will all be on board, of course, and lots of other congressmen and senators will support Lake in return for large campaign contributions of their own.

And so it proves to be. By the end of Super Tuesday, Lake has the nomination sewed up and is neck and neck in the polls with the current vice-president, who will probably have his own party’s nomination. But then, as you knew it would, it turns out that the usually very careful Mr. Lake has his own secret: He’s been writing to young Ricky himself. At this point, the story shifts into black comedy, with the CIA trying to keep the lid on things, trying to figure out the judges’ scam, trying to control the bent lawyer.

And all that is actually pretty entertaining, . . . except that it says some things about the American political system, and the intelligence community, that, in the year 2000, sounded like Hollywood. A dozen years later, though, it’s all too believable. Does anyone these days think the CIA would hesitate to kill innocent American citizens for their own convenience? Does anyone doubt big corporate money doesn’t make a damned good try at buying presidential elections?

And there’s another problem, which is the complete lack of any character the reader can root for. There are no Good Guys here, only a variety of Bad Guys. Venal but small-time Bad Guys, appallingly amoral political Bad Guys, naïve Bad Guys who are simply bored, and Bad Guys who are only following orders and don’t care about the law. If every one of them came to a sudden and bloody end at the close of the book, the reader wouldn’t care. It’s perfectly possible to have a likeable criminal with redeeming qualities, as many crime novelists have proven, but Grisham apparently wasn’t paying attention. Between the unpleasant aspects of the plot, and the unpleasant nature of every single of the characters, it’s difficult to recommend this one.

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Published in: on 1 March 2014 at 5:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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