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Sunday January 27, 2013

Highly suspenseful

The Racketeer
Author: John Grisham
Publisher: Doubleday, 343 pages

MALCOLM Bannister is 43, black, a lawyer, an ex-Marine – and he’s been stuck in prison for the past 10 years.

He never thought it would come to this. A practitioner in the small town firm of Copeland and Reed, with a loving wife and a comfortable lifestyle, Malcolm finds his life turned upside down after he gets tangled in a case involving a notorious racketeer.

Midway through his sentence, however, something happens that changes everything again: a federal judge is found murdered, with the naked body of a woman next to him, and not a witness in sight. And Malcolm knows who did it.

But he’s not revealing the killer for free. Using his shrewd knowledge of the law, he decides to use this information for his own gain, even managing to get out of prison in the process.

In most other cases, this would be the end of the story. In John Grisham’s thrilling new novel, The Racketeer, however, this is only the beginning.

It soon transpires that Malcolm’s plan to escape prison was only the first part of his complex scheme. As he gathers a bunch of unusual allies, it becomes clear that Malcolm is not only out for justice: he’s looking for revenge as well.

The Racketeer is an unusual novel, a hybrid of legal drama and high-stakes heist. Its plot is highly suspenseful: Grisham tantalises his readers by gradually revealing the circumstances behind Malcolm’s legal fall from grace, before slowly unveiling his complex schemes out of prison.

As is usual for a Grisham novel, The Racketeer is peppered with references to real life legal authorities, in this case the American Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a set of laws specifically designed to punish racketeering by business enterprises (you might recognise it by its abbreviation, Rico, mentioned in numerous American cop shows).

A crucial part of the novel also revolves around a loophole in the United States Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, but to Grisham’s credit, he never slips into legalese, explaining tricky parts of US law in layman-friendly language.

Grisham also briefly touches upon the four previous cases where US federal judges were murdered, and these real life anecdotes greatly enhance the novel, adding verisimilitude to the world of The Racketeer.

Malcolm’s scheme is plotted deftly and though it may seem slightly baffling at first, it is naturally developed and resolved well. To speak more about it would give away the plot, but here’s a hint: the novel is not called “The Racketeer” for nothing.

Most of the scheme is extremely exciting, with a highlight being a flight to Jamaica that ends in the worst way possible. Some parts of the plan, however, are a little ludicrous. It is difficult to believe, for example, that certain characters would be willing to get themselves hurt or thrown into jail just to ensure that Malcolm’s schemes turn out right.

Malcolm also seems a little too confident at times: for example, a crucial part of his plan revolves around an old friend not recognising him after he has plastic surgery. Why he couldn’t get another person to carry out this part of the plan is a little baffling.

The earlier chapters of the book contain many anecdotes about Malcolm’s life in prison, which are actually fun to read. Details such as Malcolm’s job as prison librarian, his position as an ad hoc jailhouse lawyer, and the prevalence of organised religion in prison add colour to the novel and are so fascinating that readers might even feel a little disappointed when the action moves away from the Frostburg Prison Camp.

A small nitpick, however, is that life in Frostburg prison seems a little too peaceful and idyllic to be believed. The quiet, relatively hassle-free circumstances of Malcolm’s confinement are a far cry from how prisons are usually depicted in popular media.

Also, the novel loses a bit of steam shortly after the halfway point, with a slow subplot involving Malcolm and the making of an independent documentary – but it certainly accelerates to breakneck speed towards the end, as all of the pieces in Malcolm’s complex plan finally come together.

The Racketeer features a masterpiece of a protagonist: Malcolm is a fascinating personality, an intelligent and resourceful man prepared to use unconventional methods to achieve what he wants. Some of the things he does are downright dangerous or outright cross legal lines. Yet his tenacity and dedication make it difficult for readers not to root for him.

While the murderer of the judge is indeed a compelling character, the supporting cast, however, is slightly less memorable. The many law enforcement officers on Malcolm’s case all blur together due to a lack of distinguishing characteristics, while Malcolm’s accomplices are all rather one note.

The Racketeer is highly unpredictable and the amount of salt required to be taken with some of its plot twists may cause high blood pressure. Get past that, however, and Grisham’s novel proves to be a gripping, well-plotted read, an unforgettable story about the lengths a man would go to, to take what he wants.

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