“The Racketeer” by John Grisham

"The Racketeer" by John Grisham — Kimia Wood — Grisham In the first few chapters, Malcolm Bannister plays his sympathy cards by explaining his situation as a guest of the federal government. In year five of ten for being unknowingly involved in a big-time racketeer’s money laundering, Malcolm has lost his wife and son to divorce and has a rocky relationship with his hard-nosed, lawful dad.

By the end of the book, I thought he deserved everything the FBI could stick on him, and finished reading partly to find out whether he was thrown in an oubliette.

Guess I’m not John Grisham’s target audience. [SPOILER ALERT]

The Set-up

The hook for the story is that a federal judge (and his young secretary) have been murdered at his weekend cabin. The secretary was first tortured, and a hidden safe has been totally emptied of whatever it contained.

There is no physical evidence, and the cops are at a total loss. Malcolm says he can tell them the identity of the killer.

So far so good, huh? I’m all for murders and FBI procedures and all that.

Malcolm’s price for the information: his immediate freedom, a face-change (courtesy of Witness Protection), and over $100,000 of reward money.

The Beginning

Malcolm begins the story in first-person present tense – which I’m getting really tired of. It does help give the impression that events are unfolding before our eyes – which is fine as far as it goes. However, this is interspersed with third-person past tense, which sometimes shows scenes that Malcolm could know from reading newspapers, talking to others, or imagining…but the rest of the time, it’s just a switch in perspective which is slightly confusing at worst and tiresome at best.

The one benefit of Malcolm’s in-the-moment recital is (in the words of the writing coaches) to “establish an unreliable narrator”. Boy, I should have taken that subtle clue to heart…!

After a handful of “lawyer” chapters that only beat out Njall’s Saga because I could understand them, Malcolm gets his wish and fingers another inmate for the double-murder.

And the plot momentum grinds to a halt (about 40% into the book). He’s gotten his wish, right? From rotting in a prison camp, he’s buzzing around Florida opening multiple bank accounts for his government money and putting away alcohol the way an Asimov hero goes through cigarettes.

Malcolm isn’t a guy I’d like to follow for any length of time. Yes, he’s been abused by the machinery of the criminal justice system – but apart from being a sharp lawyer and very calculating, his introduction didn’t give him a lot of personality to recommend him.

After moaning about his wife’s remarriage and pining after his son, he picks up a date at a bar and hops into bed without much compunction.

BUT…I’m under a reading challenge, and I must finish the book.

The Middle

After experiencing the misapplication of justice first-hand, no wonder Malcolm is leery of the government. And yet, his methods for watching his back seem a little…extreme. Bizarre, even. What’s he up to?

Then he launches a Mission Impossible-sized conspiracy to contact and interview an ex-convict… What is the goal of this deception?

I thought he wanted out of prison…which he is, now. Morbid curiosity now pulled me on… What is his game?

The Twist

Then came the chapter(s) that literally kept me from sleeping for a night — Not because I was engrossed in reading and couldn’t put it down, but because I was so incensed I was ready to spit.

Our protagonist – our “good guy”, the one we’re “supposed” to identify with and root for – cons, deceives, then betrays, and back-stabs another character.


Not even sprinkling in a paragraph about how “not a day goes by” that you don’t think of your son (sorry, I thought you were totally absorbed in your new mistress and your evil plot!) can redeem you.

(Malcolm even, to borrow from Peace Child, “fattens him with friendship”. That’s bad.)

From this point, I was reading for two reasons:

1) I’d come too far, and I needed to finish the book for my reading list.

2) If Malcolm got arrested in the end, that would bump my review up a star.

The End

I was not expecting a heist story. This was my first exposure to John Grim-sham, and not every author can have a home-run every time. But I didn’t expect to find myself reading about the villain…who then got away with it!

A lot of my reading lately has been about finding people I “trust”. Do I trust this author? Do I trust his worldview, his method of thinking?

No, I don’t. Not even finding out who the real killer is could really redeem Malcolm’s greedy, calculating, devious, unfeeling, and reptilian character.

I could not rejoice for the protagonist. I really couldn’t even respect him. As he sailed off to an island retreat with his lover-in-crime, until the very last page I was waiting for the FBI to finally find something on him. Sure, he made sure the murderer of the judge was punished – but he did it on his own terms, and made sure to line his own pocket along the way, with no regard for hurting anyone who wasn’t in his tiny circle.

Will I pick up another Grisham story later? Hard to say. Are his other characters more attractive? No idea. A lot of people seem to enjoy his work. But I don’t trust him.

At the very least, I won’t be reading any more soon. I have better things to do that grind along with a slimy creep (the character, not Grisham). And I need my sleep.

You can find The Racketeer on Amazon (how did that title not tip me off? Am I blind? Clueless? Must watch more Captain America now…purge, purge…)

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