Grisham, John. The Racketeer.

NY: Doubleday, 2012.

Malcolm Bannister is black, forty-three years old, a quiet and modestly successful civil attorney, with a wife he loves and a young son he adores. He’s also halfway through a ten-year sentence in a federal minimum-security prison in far western Maryland on a RICO conviction. He still doesn’t know quite how he got there since he didn’t knowingly commit any crime, but that’s how the federal justice system works these days.

He has become known as a good jailhouse lawyer, handling appeals and other legal matters for his fellow prisoners — entirely unofficially, of course, since he was disbarred five years ago, but it helps keeps him sane. Because Frostburg could be much worse, but it’s still a prison.

Malcolm runs the prison’s library, a coveted job, and he reads every newspaper, just keeping up with what’s happening outside. And then one day he reads that a federal district judge in Virginia has been brutally murdered in his remote fishing cabin in the mountains. And he knows who did it, and why. Time to contact the FBI and the U.S. Attorney and start talking a deal.

It’s the sort of plot that grabs you immediately. When Malcolm finally sits down with the investigators — none of whom are really interested in playing fair with him, of course — you can see how he plans to work it but you also wonder if he’s also going to be able to pull it off and regain his freedom. But the guy he fingers, another prisoner who had been his friend, and who had simply walked away from Frostburg into the woods (that happens in minimum security — but not often because when they catch you, you’ll end up doing seriously hard time) protests his innocence. And it begins to look like he can prove it. Is this actually a scam on Malcolm’s part?

And then, about halfway through the book, the tone and shape of the story suddenly changes. I was completely lost for a chapter or so, wondering if some other book had gotten inserted into my Kindle without my noticing. And then it becomes clear that Malcolm — who is now Max Reed Baldwin, thanks to Witness Protection — is playing a much deeper game, one he has been working on for years, and that his goal is not only to be legally free and quite wealthy, but also to get good and even for the way the government railroaded him. Malcolm/Max wants revenge and he’s going to get it in an especially elegant way.

Even though there are various points in the narrative where you will pause and think, “Wait, that isn’t how that works” (because Grisham admits that this time out, he preferred to just make things up rather than bothering with research), it’s an above-average caper yarn with a complex plot, engaging characters, and a lot of humor. Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. And this one was made for the screen.

Published in: on 2 May 2014 at 5:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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