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John’s Real Racketeer

Updated: February 2, 2013 10:56 am

The read is magnificently woven by John Grisham in style who more typically writes about victims or escapees from the law. But The Racketeer is an unusual unlike many of his others. The novel in its early stages follows the familiar Grisham template, in which a lawyer finds himself unexpectedly in legal trouble. But then it breaks out into the exhilarating tale of how Mal, a disbarred attorney, now a savvy, self-taught legal scholar, leads his pursuers on a long, winding chase.

The Racketeer is not a story about a triumph or a miscarriage of courtroom justice. It’s the more surprising story of a smart man who gets even smarter once he spends five years honing his skills as a jailhouse lawyer—and then expertly concocts an ingenious revenge scheme. The Racketeer has a plot built around a particular legal principle. In this case it’s a loophole called Rule 35. As part of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 35 allows for the reduction of a sentence if a defendant provides “substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person”. Enter Raymond Fawcett, a federal judge who is murdered at his isolated weekend home. Also at the crime scene: the judge’s secretary, also murdered, and the judge’s empty safe, which is big enough to have contained contraband of some kind.

Earlier in The Racketeer Mal comes forward with what he says is important information about the judge’s killing. He claims to know the identity and motive of the killer or killers. Grisham writes with rekindled vigor here. Perhaps that’s because he hasn’t mired this book in excessive research. As he points out in an afterword, he has made it all up: almost nothing in The Racketeer is based on fact and “accuracy was not deemed crucial”. Yet even though he dismisses himself as being among “the laziest of writers,” this author is no slacker. For some writers Mal’s Rule 35 scheme might work as a book’s denouement. But for Mr. Grisham it’s just the jumping-off point for a long chase. He strategically keeps Mal’s trickery a few steps ahead of the story, so that we don’t know why he does things until after they have started to happen. And although this is a tough plot to describe without spoilers, Mal’s masquerading as an independent documentary filmmaker, becomes one of the book’s most enjoyable aspects.

The Racketeer illustrates varied ways and only too cheerful to invite a reader to delve more into the thriller. Mr Grisham packs just enough unfairness into the original prosecution of Mal to justify anything he does afterward, even when he’s conning government agents.

And if all goes according to plan, The Racketeer’s Malcolm Bannister is going to game his way out of a federal prison camp in Frostburg. When halfway through a 10-year term for a crime he did not commit, Bannister, 43, a former attorney for an African -American law firm in Winchester, Va., may have hit the jackpot when it comes to holding the cards.

The read unfolds a federal judge and his mistress murdered in an isolated mountain cabin and their bodies discovered in the basement near a behemoth-sized safe that’s now empty. Investigators have no clue about who committed the crimes but Bannister does—and he knows what was in the safe. The wrongly convicted Bannister may start out looking like a patsy but he’s got more leverage, more tactical skills and employs more strategic thinking than the FBI can muster. The best thing about The Racketeer comes from an appreciation for the time and calculated thinking that John, the author of more than a dozen legal thrillers, has invested in his clever, twisty plot. No one knows what next keeps the reader glued till the last page arrives.

Few can find it interesting what Bannister is really up to until Grisham neatly ties it up with a bow in the closing pages. The schemes and conspiracies, more colourful than the gaudiest prison jumpsuit, feed a story line that gets additional octane from drugs, bribery, sex, corruption and one of Grisham’s favourite plot threads, corporate greed. This is the kind of story that built Grisham’s reputation as a lion of the literary thriller. The Racketeer is guilty of only one thing: keeping us engaged until the very last page.

By Syed Wajid Ali

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