When we first meet Malcolm (“Mal”) Bannister, the “hero” of this novel, he is a small-town black lawyer who has been convicted of a RICO violation and is serving the fifth year of his ten year prison sentence. (RICO, or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, provides for extended criminal penalties for acts associated with “racketeering,” a concept that is so broadly defined that it can sweep up people who have only a very tangential relationship with any serious wrongdoing. You can read the statute here.)
Mal, disbarred, divorced by his wife, and losing his son, firmly believes he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and Grisham lays out a plausible scenario about how a naïve lawyer might be caught up in a scheme that results in serious prison time. Bannister has exhausted his appeals and knows enough law to realize that he has virtually no chance of an early release through normal channels. However, when he learns that a local federal district judge has been murdered, he concocts a scheme that employs Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that just may procure his freedom. (Rule 35 provides that “Upon the government’s motion…the court may reduce a sentence if the defendant, after sentencing, provided substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person….”)
What follows is a very complicated concatenation of events that gets Bannister released and temporarily enrolled in the Federal Witness Protection Program. In the process, Grisham – through Bannister, has the opportunity to inveigh against the sometimes unfair abuse of power by federal authorities. He also describes the details of some very effective interrogation techniques used to educe confessions and gives us a glimpse of the very unpleasant realities of incarceration.
This is not a mystery novel in the classic sense where the investigator-narrator shares his thoughts with the reader as he (the narrator) gradually uncovers information that allows him to solve the crime. Instead, Grisham’s narrator tells us what he is doing, but seldom tells us why he is doing it. In addition, Grisham sometimes switches from using Bannister as narrator to an omniscient narrator to fill in facts of which Bannister would not be aware. The result is that the reader is left for 150 pages or so (out of 338) thinking that the protagonist is engaged in some very odd behavior. It all gets untangled in the end, although it takes about thirty pages of dialog for Bannister to explain his actions to some of the other characters, including the FBI agents.
Evaluation: The whole series of events is highly implausible, but who cares? The writing is clear and fast-paced, and even though Grisham “unfairly” hides some valuable information from the reader, the ending is pleasantly surprising.
Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012