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Book World: The Broker

Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Book Critic
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; 3:00 PM

Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, who reviewed John Grisham's "The Broker" in Sunday's Book World section, was online Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his review and take your questions and comments on Grisham's latest novel.

From the Publisher:
In his final hours in the Oval Office, the outgoing president grants a controversial last-minute pardon to a notorious Washington power broker Joel Backman, who has spent the last six years hidden away in a federal prison. What no one knows is that the president issues the pardon only after receiving enormous pressure from the CIA. It seems Backman, in his power broker heyday, may have obtained secrets that compromise the world's most sophisticated satellite surveillance system. Backman is quietly smuggled out of the country in a military cargo plane, given a new name, a new identity, and a new home in Italy. Eventually, after he has settled into his new life, the CIA will leak his whereabouts to the Israelis, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Saudis. Then the CIA will do what it does best: sit back and watch. The question is not whether Backman will survive—there is no chance of that. The question the CIA needs answered is, who will kill him?

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Jonathan Yardley: Good afternoon. I'd like to begin this discussion of John Grisham's new novel, "The Broker," with a confession. Until December 2004 I'd never read a word the man had written. About a decade earlier, when a new book of his came up for discussion at a Book World review-assignment meeting, I asked if the staff thought I should review him. One staff member (no longer at Book World) immediately said that I'd find his prose indigestible, or words to that effect. So I took a pass on it. My appetite for escapist popular fiction is limited to books written in a literate way -- say, the Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester or the early novels of Herman Wouk -- and my colleague made it seem that Grisham's novels didn't fit that description.

With no help or hindrance from me, Grisham just kept on getting more and more popular, to the point that it seemed to me that I had a responsibility, as The Post's Book Critic, to take a serious look at him. "The Broker" provided a good opportunity to do that, but I needed to read some of his other books before tackling it. So I decided to read an early novel ("The Firm"), a mid-career novel ("THe Runaway Jury") and a recent one ("The King of Torts"). To say that I was surprised by them is a considerable understatement. I thought they came very close to being popular fiction of the first rank: intelligent, funny, exciting, well-informed. I realized that Grisham most certainly does deserve to be taken seriously, and the long review that ran in Book World on Sunday is the result.

We're here to talk about Grisham, but if anybody wants to raise other book-related business, I'll be happy to take it on.


Oak Hill, Va.: In your review you discuss authors who write "good, solid, commercial fiction."

As a reader of Grisham I feel as you do, take some time a further develop the story. Similarly, I find another "good, solid, commercial fiction" writer, Patricia Cornwell, needs also to follow this advice. I have found her last two books to spend hundreds of pages developing the storyline to wrap it up neatly in a chapter or less.

In fact, I would not have purchased "Trace" but it was given as a gift. "The Broker" is also on the way from a family member, so I'll read it but I wold not have bought it.

Is this a common problem among authors who have to publish a book a year? It is unsatisfying to their regular readers.

Thanks for this off "The Broker" but related topic.

Jonathan Yardley: Sorry, I haven't read Cornwall so can't comment.


Washington, D.C.: A lot of Grisham's books, or at least portions of them, seem to take place in Washington. How do you think he does relative to other authors at capturing D.C.?

Jonathan Yardley: Pretty well. He doesn't know the city as well as, say, Charles McCarry or George Pelecanos, but he does a lot of research. Check out "The King of Torts" for evidence of that.


Washington, D.C.: Would you call Grisham a "great writer" or a "literary giant?" I'm conflicted. I was an English major -- weaned on the classics. But I can't seem to put Grisham's books down. Is this guilty pleasure forgivable?

Jonathan Yardley: Of course not. He writes "good, solid commercial fiction" (his own words) and he's very good at it. Drop the guilt trip and enjoy!


Trenton, N.J.: How would you compare "The Broker" with earlier Grisham novels?

Jonathan Yardley: Lots of fun, but not as meaty. As I say in the review, it reads a bit as if it were written in haste.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a Grisham super-fan. Who else would you recommend reading in a similar vein?

Jonathan Yardley: Nobody comes to mind, but there may well be some writers out there whom I simply haven't read.


Washington, D.C.: You hadn't read him before 2004? Are you a crime novel fan in general?

Jonathan Yardley: I very much like John D. MacDonald, Charles Willeford, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard and others, so the answer obviously is yes. I've done both MacDonald and Willeford in the Second Reading reconsiderations that run occasionally in Style, and doubtless in time I'll get to the others.


Fairfax, Va.: Prior to this book you had a string of books with a very heavy -- and sometimes heavy-handed -- moral side to them. What prompted you to go away from that moral outrage for this book to just a good, old-fashioned fictional romp? I must say I liked this book best of your last four or five, simply because when I read I want to lose myself, not be reminded about the poor or homeless, etc.

Jonathan Yardley: It sounds to me as if you think you're talking to John Grisham. You're not. I'm Jonathan Yardley, book critic of The Washington Post.


Clifton, Va.: I take exception to your introduction. You say you like escapist fiction written in a "literate" way. Describe literate? It isn't as if Grisham's writing in pig latin.

Jonathan Yardley: It should be perfectly clear from what follows in that Introduction that I do find Grisham's writing "literate." Go back and reread it.


Silver Spring, Md.: Which of the three Grisham books you read was your favorite... and why?

Jonathan Yardley: Tough call, because each of them has many terrific things in it. I guess if I just HAD to make a choice I'd pick "The Firm," because it's so tightly constructed, dramatic, and filled with great characters. But I love the schemers on both sides in "The Runaway Jury" and the young lawyer in "The King of Torts."


Washington, D.C.: Since having a good experience with Grisham, have you thought about dabbling with other popular fiction authors?

Jonathan Yardley: Yes I have, but haven't decided which ones. I reviewed a Stephen King many years ago and didn't like it. I'm sorry to say that as a rule literate pop fiction is something the Brits do better than we do, viz., Sebastian Faulks (sp?) and Patrick O'Brian.


Washington, D.C.: What will you be reviewing in the coming Sunday's Book World?

Jonathan Yardley: I write so far in advance that I had to look at my schedule in order to jog my memory: BEFORE WE GET STARTED
A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life
By Bret Lott


Arlington, Va.: So glad to see you online, Mr. Yardley. I know we're almost a month into 2005... but could you give us a brief list of must-reads from 2004?

Jonathan Yardley: Ward Just's "An Unfinished Season" and Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America." If you go to the Book World site inside washingtonpost.com, you'll find a link to all my past reviews. My year-end best-books piece ran the first Sunday in December.


Washington, D.C.: I can't seem to really dig in to John Grisham novels. I feel as if I'm reading a screenplay and get the sense that these books are written with a big screen in mind. Do you get that feeling?

Jonathan Yardley: No, not at all. I haven't seen any of the movie adaptations of his novels, though I certainly can see that they could make terrific films.


Charlottesville, Va.: I was very pleased (and surprised) to read your review of "The Broker" and, indeed, Grisham's career in general -- I'd suggest you might also want to read "The Last Juror," which harkens back to "A Time to Kill" territory. I think Grisham has long been underrated, and I think you hit the nail on the head in describing his skills as a social critic - I'm not sure how many of his fans read him for that, but it's one of the chief pleasures of his work for me. As a longtime mystery reader, and an escapee from the PhD program in English literature at UVA, I've always been somewhat bemused and amused by the people who will only read what they consider true "literature" -- and sorry for them, too, because they miss out on a lot of fun. For the reader seeking more "like Grisham," take a look at John Lescroart for legal thrillers, also Stephen Greenleaf; also, George Pelecanos, as you mention, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais - it's a long list. (P.S. On another subject, I long ago appreciated your "appreciation" of Laurie Colwin -- still very much missed).

Jonathan Yardley: Thanks for the very interesting comments and the kind words about my piece on dear Laurie Colwin. Yes, I think Michael Connelly is the next one I'll look at. I've read and heard very good things about him. Much if not most of the most interesting social commentary in American fiction these days is to be found in so-called "genre" fiction and not in the pretentious, narcissistic novels and stories being written by the literati. Good for you for escaping the PhD program!


Brooklyn, N.Y.: What distinguishes Grisham's work as commercial rather than literary fiction? Does it have to do with themes, etc. or is it more a matter of form, such as prose and narrative structure? Is it simply a question of ambition? To use a foil, many movies are based on less than literary books (Hitchcock could be used as an example), but the movies themselves are considered art because of their artful direction, editing, and camerawork; art here is precisely a matter of form. What in written fiction accounts for a well-written, well-plotted book being less than literary?

Jonathan Yardley: That's a good question that no one has ever really answered satisfactorily. Commerical fiction tends to be driven by plot and suspense and to be relatively light on theme and meaning, while literary fiction may be much heavier on the latter and lighter on the former. I have always felt that relatively minor novels can make first-rate movies (viz., "Gone With the Wind") because they're strong on what the movies can deliver (plot, characters, atmosphere, suspense), but light on prose style and thematic content -- viz., all those failed Hollywood efforts to capture "The Great Gatsby" in film.


Crestview, Fla.: I consider "The Last Juror" to be, by far, Grisham's best work. Do you think it had any chance of a Pulitzer if the writer wasn't such a commercial success. Also, how does that compare to his newest book, "The Broker?"

Jonathan Yardley: Sorry, I haven't read "The Last Juror," but it's on my list.


Charlottesville, Va.: Ah, but I didn't tell you what I escaped to -- back to the law! Do try Lehane as wel, plus, if you want to venture overseas, Ian Rankin and Ken Bruen (especially The Guards, by Bruen) -- and, also, see some of the movies made from Grisham's books, particularly "The Rainmaker" and "Runaway Jury."

Jonathan Yardley: Ah, the law! No wonder you like Grisham. Take a look again at my review or the intro to this chat and you'll see that I've al;ready read, and admired, "The Runaway Jury."


Philadelphia, Pa.: Okay, I can be dismissive of commerical fiction (and non-fiction). But my one foray was 10 years ago, reading "The Firm." I was open to it. I read it in two or three day/nights. I couldn't put it down. I respected its story-telling. But once I was finished, there was nothing that stayed with me. Like an unsatisfying meal that leaves you ready to eat something else. Unlike any other book I've read. I read the Odyssey this past fall. It was weeks before I could read something else substantial, I was so full.

Jonathan Yardley: I didn't have that response to "The Firm," and a good deal of it has stuck with me, but I see your point. As to "The Odyssey," I hope you read Robert Fagles's translation. I read it a year ago and was bowled over.


Arlington, Va.: What's the absolute best new book I should run out and buy right now?

Jonathan Yardley: Good Lord, I haven't a clue. Questions like that always stop me in my tracks. Pretend Lolita is new and read THAT.


Fairfax, Va.: Orson Scott Card is my most favorite author. What do you think of "Ender's Game?" I read it almost once a year.

Jonathan Yardley: Sorry, I've never read him or it. Mea culpa.


Charlottesville, Va.: No, I did see that, but I thought you said you hadn't seen the movies -- I was recommending those movies. One other recommendation for the fan of Grisham -- try Lee Child's work, the Jack Reacher series -- very suspenseful and well-written.

Jonathan Yardley: Ah so. As the man says in "Cool Hand Luke," what we have here is a failure of communication. I'll rent the DVD.


Frederick, Md.: Your opening comments and your review indicate that you've mainly read Grisham's "main" line of work -- his crime books. Have you looked at his more "literary" works, like "A Painted House" or "Bleachers?" As a native of Arkansas who went to college at Ole Miss, I find his evocation of Southern small-town life accurate, and enjoyable, and I've recommended them to others as "non-lawyer" Grisham books.

Jonathan Yardley: I haven't read those yet but a number of people have spoken or written warmly about them to me, and I have every intention of reading them.


Munich, Germany: Have you ever met Mr. Grisham? He sounds quite modest when talking about the subject matter of his books. Do you have any idea how long he spends on research before he starts writing a novel?

Jonathan Yardley: No, I don't review the books of authors whom I know personally. I do get the impression that Grisham is a good guy.


Lawton, Okla.: Thank you for your fine review of Grisham's work. I thought his character development in "The Testament" was as good and any in literature and the plotting in "The Runaway Jury" to be tight and seamless. I found "The King of Torts" to be formulaic and was disappointed in how "The Last Juror" wrapped everything up because the author seemed to have reached his page requirement.

After reading "The Last Juror," however, I read James Patterson's latest (cough, cough). Even at his formulaic worst, Grisham's a better story teller.

I'm now reading Grisham's "Bleachers," which, along with his "Painted House" is supposed to be a step outside of the thriller genre. Excellent book!

Jonathan Yardley: Thanks. "The Testament" is on my reading list, too.


Jonathan Yardley: As we used to say when I was a kid, back in the Pleistocene Era: THat's all, folks! Thanks for joining our discussion, and please come back for future Book World discussions.


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