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REVIEW: THE RACKETEER BY JOHN GRISHAM

RACKETEER, THE
Author: John Grisham
Hodder & Stoughton RRP $39.99 (Hardback)
Review: Monique Mulligan

The RacketeerRacketeer: “A person who commits crimes such as extortion, loansharking, bribery, and obstruction of justice in furtherance of illegal business activities.”

It’s been a while since I’ve read a John Grisham thriller – of 25 novels, I’ve read about 12. I’m not exactly sure why I stopped reading them, but I do remember thinking that something had changed from his earlier novels, which were flavoured with issues of cultural/social importance. I loved A Time to Kill and the way it highlighted racism and racial tension; I was moved by The Chamber and its confronting look at the death penalty. Maybe I felt that a sense of cynicism had crept in. Maybe I felt that Grisham had lost his edge. Either way, it’s been a while.

Disbarred lawyer Malcolm Bannister is in prison, convicted of a white collar crime he says he has “no knowledge of committing”. Half-way through his 10-year sentence, he spends his days as a “jailhouse lawyer”, helping other inmates with their legal issues, and thinking about his son, Bo, who he is not sure he will ever seen again. The brief insight to Malcolm’s fatherhood is probably the most emotive of the book: “How do you confront a child who you love so much it hurts but who will not recognize you? We are never going to live together as a typical father and son. Would it be fair to Bo to have his long-lost father reappear and insist on becoming part of his life?” As quickly as this thought is expressed, it is compartmentalised to the “Too hard basket” file.

As Malcolm waits out his sentence, the FBI is baffled by the murder of Judge Raymond Fawcett, who has the unfortunate distinction of becoming only the fifth active federal judge in the history of the USA to be murdered. His body was found in the small basement of a lakeside cabin he had built himself and frequently used on weekends. When he did not show up for a trial on Monday morning, his law clerks panicked, called the FBI, and in due course the agents found the crime scene. There was no forced entry, no struggle, just two dead bodies – Judge Fawcett and his young secretary.

Malcolm knows who killed the judge and he plays his card with cunning – he gives the FBI the name, they get him out of prison and into witness protection. Armed with freedom, a new look, a new identity and the reward money of $150,000 he has everything he wants. Now named Max Baldwin, he starts to plan for his future; the FBI, who monitors his Internet activity, meetings, phone calls and so on see nothing to worry about until they hear that Max’s identity has been compromised. His reaction to their news stuns them – instead of remaining under their protection, Max bluntly informs them that he’s leaving witness protection and going it alone: “I trusted you until this morning, and look where I am now. There’s no trust. Zero”, he tells the FBI.

It’s about here that the book adopts a different feel. The danger Max is in seems to disappear and it becomes more apparent that he has an agenda and he knows exactly what he’s doing. Unlike the Government, which is left in catch-up mode. What follows is an intriguing, fast-paced “man against system” story, as Max executes what amounts to a sting against the Government. It’s like something you’d see in a movie – a bit unrealistic at times, but you can’t help wanting to see how it all plays out.

The Racketeer is jammed full of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing – what’s Max up to? How will it end? It’s very well written, with plenty of tension that doesn’t veer too far from the legal thriller genre Grisham is noted for. I read it in a day. As a narrative, it works well and it should keep most fans happy. However, I didn’t really like Max/Malcolm. At first I was expecting a “framed man proves innocence” story and Grisham certainly had readers’ sympathies in place for Malcolm; I was all prepared to be on his side. Unfortunately the “do what I like without fear of consequence” behaviour that ultimately typified Max didn’t endear me to him; he became arrogant and vengeful and it made me sympathise with him less as I knew him more. It didn’t make me not want to find out what happened though.

Overall, a good, entertaining read. Tense, clever and engrossing, it’s a reminder of why I liked Grisham’s writing so much years ago and I’m going to check out some I’ve missed, starting with The Litigators. Plan to spend a day reading – it’s hard to put down.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia.

Bookish treat: Sandwiches – good to eat when you’re on the run.

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