“I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story.” It’s the perfect opening line for a brand-new John Grisham book. “The Racketeer” (Doubleday, New York, 2012, 340 pages) is the lawyer-turned-writer’s 25th novel, and it’s a legal thriller, the kind of book that Grisham might as well have invented, but this is one he turns inside out.
In past novels, Grisham either liked to preach about a hot-button topic (capital punishment in 1994’s “The Chamber”) or an arcane aspect of the law (litigation in, well, 2011’s “The Litigators”). In recent years, Grisham has also been noticeably sharpening his prose, making his text muscular enough to match the dynamite legal plots he likes cooking up.
“The Racketeer” bristles with Grisham’s revamped narrative style, but it neither preaches nor lectures. Instead, the book is the closest thing to a good, old-fashioned yarn that Grisham has come up with, a novel that seeks to be thrilling instead of realistic.
It has a whopper of a premise. Malcolm Bannister is an African-American ex-Marine convicted of a racketeering charge he was unaware of. Disbarred, his life practically destroyed and now the resident jailhouse lawyer at a minimum-security facility near Frostburg, Maryland, Bannister is officially inmate number 44861-127.
Convinced of his own innocence, he is angry at the federal government, seething because of what he deems to be unfair captivity. But when a federal judge named Raymond Fawcett in the judge’s cabin near Lake Higgins, Bannister sets something into motion by coursing a message through the warden to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But it’s more than just a message. “I have a plan, one I have been plotting for years now. It is my only way out,” Bannister says.
Bannister says he knows who killed the judge, but will only talk once he is placed in witness security, received plastic surgery and started a new life as someone else. He seeks to take advantage of Rule 35, which says that a prisoner may be released if he aids in solving another crime, the legal element at the heart of “The Racketeer.” Skeptical at first, the FBI is soon swayed and Bannister is whisked from the prison camp and transformed into a new man named Max Reed Baldwin. The alleged killer is named, a black ex-drug dealer named Quinn Rucker who is quickly arrested and, under interrogation, confesses to the crime.
Just getting started
The end, right? The strange thing is that the reader is only halfway through “The Racketeer” when all this transpires. Grisham is just getting started, and so is Bannister. Bannister is suddenly flying to the Caribbean and back, setting up fake corporations, and tracking down someone he used to know. The FBI is desperately trying to keep track of him and trying to figure out what Bannister is up to. “So it’s just me, free but on the run, scheming some way to exact revenge while riding off into the sunset,” he says.
The rest of “The Racketeer” unfolds in rapid-fire fashion but Bannister’s true plan isn’t revealed until very close to the novel’s end in a chunk of breathless exposition. The book doesn’t try to be edgy or obscure. The calculating and clever Bannister is a fascinating protagonist, someone who may be too smart for everyone trying to catch up to him. Grisham is perfectly happy just telling a whale of a tale that just happens to have legal elements. “The Racketeer” is really more like a classic heist film and it works.
“The Racketeer” is a great showcase for the slick storytelling that John Grisham who, by letting loose and just weaving one heck of a crisscrossing criminal tale, succeeds in keeping even those readers most familiar with his work guessing until the very end.
Available in hardcover from National Book Store.