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by John Grisham
Doubleday, October 2012
352 pages
ISBN: 0385535147

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The very word racketeer brings to mind movie villains smoking big cigars and employing muscle to extort their ill-gotten gains from defenceless citizens. But the racketeer in this case is a middle-class black lawyer named Malcolm Bannister who has been committed for ten years under the RICO Act for money-laundering. He is, he says, innocent and we have no real reason to doubt him. Even if he were guilty as charged, the sentence is excessive considering his lack of involvement in any serious offence. But RICO, Grisham tells us, is a powerful tool in the hands of an ambitious prosecutor, and the larger trial in which Bannister was caught up was a headline grabber. Thus Bannister is now spending his days in a federal prison camp called Frostburg. He is five years into his sentence.

The newspapers tell us that federal prison camps (for non-violent, frequently white-collar, offenders) are "country clubs." Bannister does not see it quite that way. He has spent every minute of the past five years trying to think of how to get out of jail legally. When he reads of the murder of federal judge Raymond Fawcett and his female companion in the judge's remote fishing camp, he sees the path unfold before him.

Because he is a lawyer, and a very bright one too, Bannister is familiar with Rule 35, which Grisham succinctly explains. It "provides the only mechanism for the commutation of a prison sentence....If an inmate can solve another crime, one that the Feds have an interest in, then the inmate's sentence can be reduced." And Bannister can do just that - he knows who killed Judge Fawcett and in exchange for an absolute discharge, a change of identity, a place in the Witness Protection Program, and the reward money, he will be happy to let the Feds know too.

What unfolds is an extremely tricky and unpredictable plot, where the reader wants to know not merely the usual "will this work"? but also what is he doing? It will take a reader of an extremely devious cast of mind to work that out before the final page.

Plot is the name of the game here, plot and Grisham's passing illuminations of legal injustice and prosecutorial over-reach that are always worth the price of admission. What is less compelling are the characters who really never emerge in any depth. Grisham does not endow the main character with a voice of his own, even though much of the book is told in the first person. So I found it hard to invest emotionally in his fate, though the intellectual puzzle certainly engaged my interest. The secondary characters are even less vivid.

But you're not going to pick this up for profound psychological insight. It is, as we have come to expect from this author, enormously entertaining, smoothly written, and with enough substance to make it something more than simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours. And you really can't ask for much more than that.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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