THE RACKETEER, by John Grisham. Doubleday. 340 pp., $28.95.
"The Racketeer" is John Grisham's 30th book, and it offers a thorough display of this bestselling author's characteristic virtues: imaginative plotting, a fluent prose style and an insider's view of our complex, often fatally flawed legal system.
Big issues that pit a single, powerless individual against a vast, implacable adversary have inspired some of his most memorable novels. Among the subjects that have sparked his ire are capital punishment ("The Chamber"), Big Tobacco ("The Runaway Jury") and the plight of the unjustly convicted. This concern found its way into "The Innocent Man," a work of nonfiction, and his 2010 novel, "The Confession." It also provides the dramatic impetus for "The Racketeer."
The eponymous racketeer, Malcolm Bannister, opens by telling us: "I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It's a long story." Bannister is midway through a 10-year sentence for money laundering, though his real crime, we discover, is simply "picking the wrong client." A small-town lawyer with a modest practice, Bannister saw his life come apart when he agreed to handle a real estate transaction for a white-collar crook named Barry Rafko. Ignorant of his client's history and reputation, Bannister was swept up in a tide of indictments when Rafko was arrested on multiple counts of conspiracy and financial malfeasance. The jury was confused by a flood of arcane evidence and pressured by "a weak and sanctimonious" judge to arrive at a speedy verdict. Bannister received an exorbitant sentence, one that stripped him of his family, freedom and career.
Five years later, an embittered Bannister gets his chance at revenge when a corrupt federal judge is murdered, together with his secretary / mistress. The FBI investigation goes nowhere -- until Bannister steps in. A jailhouse lawyer with access to a great many criminal secrets, he knows the killer's motive and identity and offers to trade that knowledge for money, freedom and a fresh start. When the FBI accepts his offer, Bannister -- rechristened Max Baldwin -- embarks on a new life.
What follows is a clever series of twists and reversals. As he shuttles characters from Maryland to Florida to assorted Caribbean locales -- some of which, thankfully, tourists will never see -- Grisham transforms his straightforward tale into an elaborate caper. At times, the convoluted scheme that unfolds seems too elaborate, but Grisham makes it work with a narrative energy that rarely flags.
Throughout, Grisham never loses sight of the central questions that underlie the novel: How equitable -- how humane -- is our system of justice? How often are punishments wholly disproportionate to crimes? In Bannister's words, "The real tragedy of the federal criminal system is not the absurdities. It is the ruined and wasted lives." Grisham addresses this tragedy in the way he knows best: by telling a story that is engaging and illuminating in equal measure.