Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Novel's rapid clip zooms by reality checks

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Former lawyer Malcolm Bannister is in a real pickle.

He's been in a Maryland prison for five years and still facing another five after getting swept up in a massive federal bust, having stupidly not asked enough questions when his ne'er-do-well client had him move millions of dollars around offshore accounts.

Bannister has been disbarred, his wife has dumped him and taken his son far away. Most of his family and all his former friends want nothing to do with him.

Fortunately, Bannister knows all about Rule 35, which American lawyer-author John Grisham tells us is a federal statute that allows a convict to be let out if he or she can help solve a crime in the outside world.

Could Bannister have inside intelligence to trade about the torture and murder of a federal judge and his secretary at an isolated cabin?

Grisham's early thrillers, such as The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client, were humdingers, terrifically gripping and well-written.

But in recent years, he has dropped characterization in favour of caricature, replaced plot development with by-the-numbers superficiality, and pretty much misplaced his mojo.

The Racketeer moves along at a rapid clip, rarely stopping for breath or reality checks.

Grisham tells us repeatedly that the federal and state justice systems in the U.S. frequently prosecute and convict innocent people. Bannister finds numerous law enforcement agencies tripping over each other in their eagerness to cut deals that would get them the headlines for even bigger busts, the lack of evidence notwithstanding.

The feds with whom Bannister dickers and deals are all one-dimensional interchangeable stereotypes -- it's not really worth trying to keep track of who's who.

In one flashback, Bannister relates that it took 46 days between leaving the courthouse in handcuffs following his conviction and reaching prison. During that time, he rode prison buses and cargo planes all over the country, as the convicted were dropped off or picked up for transfer, an excruciating odyssey. Does anyone know if this is the norm?

Bannister, by the way, is African-American, and Grisham is white.

Having Bannister be black appears just to be a handy plot device. The system is even more stacked against him, and it's easier to set up his interactions with the demographic background of all kinds of minor characters.

Key to Bannister's plans are his job as prison librarian, and it's certainly worth noting the enormous amount of information a conniving convict can compile just by reading daily newspapers in print form.

Alas, it quickly becomes apparent that Grisham is still on the downward slide -- Bannister's plotting to win his release moves from unlikely and ludicrous to preposterous and absurd.


Nick Martin is a Free Press reporter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J8


Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:25 AM CST: adds fact box, adds photo

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