The Racketeer is published by Random House (Dell Books) and written by John Grisham. The book starts off with a bang: “I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story.” These are the first words we hear from the main character, Malcolm Bannister. [FYI–being disbarred, sent to prison, or both are scary thoughts for attorneys. The State Bar of Texas publishes a monthly journal that lists the names of lawyers who have had their bar cards pulled and the reasons for it.]
Bannister tells us that he practices law in Winchester, Virginia when he agrees to do a real-estate transaction for a confidential client. The client turns out to be Barry the Backhander, an unscrupulous influence peddler in D.C. As a result, Bannister, along with other defendants, are arrested and indicted on racketeering charges. The good news for Bannister is that he is factually innocent. The bad news is that the jury finds him guilty and a judge hands down a ten-year sentence. Bannister is collateral damage. This is how Bannister lands in prison and how the story begins. So far so good.
But what happens next requires a suspension of disbelief that undermines the story. While Bannister is serving his sentence, a federal judge and his mistress are murdered. The FBI has no leads. Bannister convinces the FBI to execute an agreement under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35, which allows for a reduction of sentence if a defendant provides the government with substantial assistance.
Specifically, Bannister offers to provide the name of the killer and help secure an indictment, but not a conviction, of the judge’s murderer. In exchange, Bannister requests his immediate freedom along with other demands. Bannister refuses to give the name of the killer until the Rule 35 agreement is approved by a federal judge. The Feds agree.
In my experience practicing in federal court–this is so improbable that it is almost comical. Drug dealers, terrorists, and criminals can only dream of dealing with these feds because the feds in this novel don’t exist. And that’s the problem with the story–Bannister possess exceptional intellect, wit, and shrewdness while the Feds come across as dim-witted goofs. It is not realistic. Grisham could have better promoted his story by equalizing the talent level of Bannister and the Feds, while keeping Bannister one step ahead.
The other issue is that Bannister is not exactly a warm fuzzy character that readers will cheer for. He is understandably jaded because of his wrongful conviction. But the qualities that draw you to a character like Walter White (Breaking Bad) who uses deception to achieve his purposes are missing in Malcolm Bannister. This magnifies the extreme implausibility of the story.
And that’s a shame because Grisham’s story telling is superb. His plot twists are clever and do keep the reader interested. Who killed the judge and his mistress? How does Malcolm Bannister acquire this information? What happens after Malcolm Bannister dimes out the killer? Grisham does a good job of keeping the reader on tilt. Further, Grisham’s book received great reviews in the New York Times and USA Today.
Unfortunately for this blogger-the implausibility of the story is too much to overcome.
Genaro R. Cortez