I am probably one of the few lawyers who does not like John Grisham. We have never met. It’s just a case of professional jealousy.
Many lawyers fancy themselves as crime fiction writers. It seems simple enough until you actually try it. John Grisham and Scott Turow stand out from the pack who have published more than one shot-in-the-dark legal thriller because their writings are true novels featuring clever plots, strong, differentiated characters, believable dialogue and overall intelligent writing. Grisham’s latest offering, “The Racketeer,” demonstrates his continuing mastery of the genre. After writing several dozen best-sellers, he has produced a delicious tale of crime, punishment and revenge that had me riveted to my home office easy chair during the daylight hours after Hurricane Sandy had knocked out our electricity, telephone, Internet and cable TV service in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Grisham writes in a conversational first-person voice that reveals the thoughts, dreams, anger and brilliance of the central character, Malcolm Bannister, a small-town, 43-year-old black lawyer in federal prison for a crime he did not commit. Bannister made a lawyer’s worst mistake — he accepted a referral from a law school classmate to represent a client he did not know in a series of complex transactions he did not understand.
Barry Rafco, a Washington, D.C., influence peddler modeled loosely on Jack Abramoff, offers to pay Bannister’s small firm a huge fee in connection with the purchase of a hunting lodge Rafco plans to operate for the weekend dalliances of wayward members of Congress. However, the transaction becomes more complex with the formation of off-shore corporations in notorious tax havens that expose the firm’s bank accounts to a series of money wire transfers to launder illegal funds.
Convicted of RICO violations, sentenced to 10 years, and with all appeals exhausted and no opportunity for parole under the federal criminal system, Bannister stews over his treatment at the hands of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney, and the sentencing judge.
He understands, but does not forgive, his wife who stopped visiting soon after his incarceration, divorced him and remarried, and mourns the loss of his 5-year-old son who is never allowed to see him in prison. He pals around with three other white-collar criminals, works in the prison library for 30 cents an hour, doles out jail house legal advice to some of his fellow cons and the prison warden, and contemplates the unrelieved tedium of five more years in confinement.
And then lightning strikes. A federal judge and his paramour secretary are found shot to death execution-style in a remote country cabin — the fourth federal judge in U.S. history to be murdered. A large, state-of-the-art and ostensibly burglar-proof safe lies open and empty in the cabin.
The Honorable Raymond Fawcett, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Virginia, is not the judge that presided over Malcolm’s trial or sentenced him. Bannister has never met or practiced before Judge Fawcett. Nevertheless, Bannister claims to know a great deal about the deceased judge. So much in fact, that Bannister tells his jailers that he knows who killed the judge and why.
Without any weapon, fingerprints, DNA or other useful clues at the crime scene, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney are stymied. Bannister sees his golden opportunity and proposes a deal. He will identify the killer and in exchange win a get-out-of-jail-free card under Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that permits the government to apply to a federal judge for a sentence reduction if a prisoner renders substantial assistance to the arrest and conviction of another person.
It wouldn’t be fair to Grisham or his reading public to reveal any more of “The Racketeer’s” intricate plot that has as many twists and turns as any amusement park roller-coaster ride. For a lawyer who was dumb enough to be the innocent pigeon in a criminal enterprise he claims not to have understood, Bannister has hatched a plan worthy of the author who created him. Bannister not only gives his captors a clever chase, but also hides much of the ball from the reader, occasionally dropping a tiny clue to where he may be going.
Along the way in this best-selling confection, Grisham gives us a peek into the supposed operations of low-security federal prisons, the witness protection program, the art of counterfeiting and other juicy details of crime and law enforcement.
But, don’t be taken in by all of Grisham’s detailed window-dressing. By his own admission in the Author’s Note at the end of “The Racketeer,” Grisham has spun a gripping tale based on his fertile imagination without the benefit of any research or fact-checking. Grisham uses Bannister to illustrate his personal opinion that too many nonviolent criminals occupy our prison system at a per capita cost far in excess of what we spend to educate our children. Fortunately, Grisham makes his point with a light touch that saves the book from becoming a diatribe.
It is also worth noting that Rule 35 sentence reductions are offered extremely sparingly and with many more conditions and procedural safeguards than Bannister encounters. Federal judges do not behave in the manner Grisham describes and U.S. Attorneys and the FBI are more than equal to the task of solving crimes and negotiating with prisoners than the flat-footed crew opposite Bannister.
When the murderer and motive are revealed, you may wonder why there was not more physical evidence at the crime scene and why the authorities could not have solved the crime without Bannister’s help.
But these deviations from real-life crimes and legal precision are all right with me. After all, if I wanted reality or to brush up on my knowledge of the law, I’d pour over the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and erudite judicial opinions piled up on the corner of my desk. “The Racketeer” is literally a page-turner that will amuse Grisham’s legions of fans.
By John Grisham
352 pages, $28.95
Robert L. Pratter grew up in Buffalo and now practices law in Philadelphia.