John Grisham is the author of a rare book.
That might sound puzzling, given that Grisham has sold more than 300 million copies of his thrillers. But in the rare-edition room at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., there’s Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” written when he was still working as a small-town lawyer. The print run was 5,000 copies. Every expense was spared.
“If you read the book, the spine would just break,” said Lemuria owner John Evans, whose copy, in so-so condition, is marked at $3,000. “They’re just so fragile.”
If a living thriller writer whose books circulate in the rare-book world is an anomaly, a thriller writer of a rare book writing a thriller about the black market in rare books is an act of total cognitive publishing dissonance.
But that’s what Grisham has done with his new novel — his 30th. “Camino Island” is an entertaining departure from his legal thrillers. It is about a heist of F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from Princeton University’s main library, a bookish thief and a struggling young novelist.
“It’s a biblio caper,” Evans said.
It’s also a love letter to an uppity literary world that has never considered Grisham to be an “important” writer — at least not in the North. Grisham, a very rich man, has never cared. “Camino Island” is not an ingratiating effort to turn the MFA crowd into Grisham readers. But the subject matter might lure some of them in.
Grisham and his wife, Renee, came up with the idea for the novel a few years ago on a summer drive to Florida. “We listen to books on tape, to podcasts, we’ve got the dog in the back seat,” Grisham said, proving that best-selling authors are just like us, except for the part where the driver and passenger dream up thriller plots.
“I can’t remember what inspired us to start talking about rare books and rare-book thefts,” Grisham said, although he vaguely recalls hearing an NPR story about a book heist in London. It’s a world the couple knows well. The Grishams, who live near Charlottesville, collect rare first editions by Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald.
Grisham began doing research, calling rare-book dealers for details. He did not, however, visit Firestone Library at Princeton, where the heist takes place. For one thing, he admits to being a lazy researcher. More important, he was concerned for the library’s safety.
“I don’t want to inspire anyone to get any bad ideas,” Grisham said. “I couldn’t go there and say, ‘I want to see the manuscripts because I’m writing a book about how to steal them.’ ”
The first chapter is vintage Grisham — fast, taut, daring:
“All trails became dead ends,” he writes. “Tips that had at first seemed urgent now faded away. The waiting game began. Whoever had the manuscripts would want money, and a lot of it. They would surface eventually, but where and when, and how much would they want?”
To avoid giving away the plot, perhaps it’s best to say they wanted slightly more than what a copy of “A Time to Kill,” in perfect condition, is currently worth in rare-book marketplaces online.
“Slight hint of bump to spine head of jacket,” one listing says. “This lovely copy is housed in a fine condition custom clamshell case.”
Price: $4,499.99. That’s $200 more than the seller’s listing of Hemingway’s masterpiece “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Among the collectors of Grisham’s first book is John Grisham. After “A Time to Kill” was published in 1989, he gave away or sold nearly 1,000 of his own copies, keeping 50 or 60 for himself.
“I’ve got those buried in the back yard,” he said.
Sometimes he gets a call from a friend or rare-book dealer who has run across a copy. “I’m always interested if the book is in great shape,” Grisham said, while acknowledging that it is “kind of weird” to spend thousands of dollars to buy an old copy of a book he wrote. The books’ original value, he jokes, was derived mainly from their utility as doorstops.
“These things were stacked up around my law office,” Grisham said. “A lot of my clients couldn’t read very well anyway, so they didn’t want a book. I couldn’t give the books away.”
But as a “A Time to Kill” rose in value, so did the fortunes of independent bookstores in the South, particularly in Mississippi, where shops such as Lemuria and Square Books in Oxford pushed Grisham alongside more highbrow Southern writers.
“John gave us a whole new customer,” said Evans, the owner at Lemuria. “A lot of people in the South grew up without bookstores in their communities. They didn’t understand how much fun reading is. As they enjoyed John’s books, they became interested in reading more.”
Grisham readers became Faulkner readers. And sometimes it worked the other way, too.
Grisham is philosophical about it all.
“In any great bookstore,” he said, “there’s room for everybody.”