Principle of law

Principle of law

Principle of law

John Grisham’s ‘The Racketeer’ is about a disbarred ex-lawyer in prison with information about the murder of a federal judge, writes Janet Maslin.

At one of many moments in John Grisham’s new novel that find Malcolm Bannister, its main character, taunting federal investigators, he announces: “There is simply no section of your vast federal code that you can possibly use against me.”

Grisham more typically writes about victims or escapees from the law, not about anyone with the nerve to flout authority this brazenly.

But The Racketeer is an unusual book for Grisham. Unlike many of his others, it has no soapbox to stand on and is not out to teach lessons about justice. This book is much more duplicitous than that.

In its early stages it does follow 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.

Mal begins the book as a convict, an ex-Marine and former lawyer who got caught up in racketeering charges related to a crooked influence peddler nicknamed Barry the Backhander.

The involvement of Mal’s tiny law firm in executing one of Barry’s real-estate transactions brought Mal a 10-year federal sentence for RICO violations he never knowingly committed. Mal’s wider story also involves a coerced confession, which will prove very helpful later. And Mal happens to be black. That fact seems to have nothing to do with the book until Grisham makes shrewd use of race later on.

The Grisham backlist is so long that Grisham has already written nonfiction about an innocent man (The Innocent Man) and a novel centred on a questionable confession (The Confession, featuring a Texas governor with a wicked resemblance to Rick Perry). So The Racketeer just sounds like more of the same.

But this is not a story about a triumph or a miscarriage of courtroom justice. It’s the more devious, 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.

Like any Grisham book not involving baseball, 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.

Early 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. And he will talk. All he wants in exchange: being let out of prison; placed in the Witness Security Program; given a surgically altered face and new identity; and then set free to do whatever he likes with the rest of his life.

Grisham writes with rekindled vigour 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. He has simply abandoned the legwork and gone back to what he does best, storytelling rather than crusading.

(His own experience does seem to inform some of the novel’s vital plot points, particularly in regard to the lax security regulations for travel by private jet.)

For some writers Mal’s Rule 35 scheme might work as a book’s denouement. But for 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.

Almost in passing, The Racketeer illustrates varied ways to circumvent the FBI, to violate financial regulations and to prove that crime just might pay. But the book is too cheerful to invite any tsk-tsking about what Mal gets away with.

Grisham packs just enough unfairness into the original prosecution of Mal to justify anything he does afterward, even when he’s conning government agents.

“Just act like a lawyer,” one such agent instructs Mal, as the two of them prepare to make a jailhouse visit.“If he only knew,” Mal thinks.

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