Since the appearance of his breakout novel, “The Firm,” in 1991, the prolific and popular John Grisham has been a fixture on national bestseller lists. It isn’t hard to see why. “The Racketeer” is Grisham’s 30th book, and it offers a thorough display of his characteristic virtues: imaginative plotting; a fluent, deceptively effortless prose style; and an insider’s view of our complex, often fatally flawed legal system.
Grisham is at his best when his sense of moral outrage has been fully engaged. Big issues that pit a single, powerless individual against a vast, implacable adversary have inspired some of his most memorable novels. Among the subjects that have sparked his ire are capital punishment (“The Chamber”), the depredations of Big Tobacco (“The Runaway Jury”), and, most notably, the plight of the unjustly convicted. Grisham is a member of the board of directors of the Innocence Project, an organization devoted to assisting prisoners incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. This concern has found its way into much of his recent writing, including “The Innocent Man,” a work of nonfiction, and his 2010 novel, “The Confession.” It also provides the dramatic impetus for “The Racketeer.”
The eponymous racketeer, Malcolm Bannister, opens by telling us: “I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story.” It is indeed. As that long story begins, Bannister is midway through a 10-year prison sentence for money laundering, though his real crime, we discover, is simply “picking the wrong client.” A small-town lawyer with a modest practice, Bannister saw his life come apart when he agreed to handle a real estate transaction for a white-collar crook named Barry Rafko. Ignorant of his client’s history and reputation, Bannister, along with several other unwitting participants, was swept up in a tide of indictments when Rafko was arrested on multiple counts of conspiracy and financial malfeasance. The jury was confused by a flood of arcane evidence and pressured by “a weak and sanctimonious” judge to arrive at a speedy verdict. Bannister received an exorbitant sentence, one that stripped him of his family, freedom and career, leaving him embittered and eager for revenge.
Five years later, Bannister gets his chance when a corrupt federal judge is murdered, together with his secretary/mistress, in an isolated cabin in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Stymied by a lack of witnesses and an absence of forensic evidence, the FBI investigation goes nowhere — until Bannister steps in. A jailhouse lawyer with access to a great many criminal secrets, he alone knows the killer’s motive and identity, and he offers to trade that knowledge for money, freedom and a fresh start. When the FBI accepts his offer and successfully indicts the newly identified suspect, Bannister — re-christened Max Baldwin — embarks on a new life. At this point, the real, underlying story can begin.
What follows is a cleverly orchestrated series of twists and reversals. As he shuttles his characters from Maryland to Florida to assorted Caribbean locales — some of which, thankfully, tourists will never see — Grisham transforms his once straightforward tale into an elaborate caper that is ingenious, surprising and suspenseful. At times, the convoluted scheme that gradually unfolds seems almost too elaborate, too dependent on crucial but problematic events, any one of which could cause Bannister/Baldwin’s complex scenario to collapse. But like his protagonist, Grisham makes it work, holding the pieces together with a headlong narrative energy that rarely, if ever, flags. The result is a satisfying, deeply engrossing thriller in which different forms of justice are ultimately served.
Grisham anatomizes the drab routines of a minimum-security prison, describing the kind of interrogation techniques that can lead to coerced confessions, and he imagines the process by which a newly released prisoner discovers the “exhilarating and indescribable” pleasures of freedom. Throughout, Grisham never loses sight of the central questions that underlie the novel at every turn: How equitable — how humane — is our system of justice? How often are punishments wholly disproportionate to crimes? In Bannister’s words, “The real tragedy of the federal criminal system is not the absurdities. It is the ruined and wasted lives.” Grisham addresses this tragedy cogently and in the way he knows best: by telling a story that is engaging and illuminating in equal measure.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 340 pp. $28.95