The Brethern, John Grisham

Dell, 2002, 368 pages, C$45.00 hc, ISBN 0-385-49746-6

Since I’m already on record as being a big fan of Grisham’s post-Runaway Jury career largely because of Grisham’s experimentation with new ways of telling the same stories, I might as well take apart The Brethren and explain why it doesn’t work as well as it should even if it does playfully experiment.

Like many Grisham novels, it largely takes place in the south-eastern United States.  This time, we’re off to Florida, to a minimal-security federal prison in which three incarcerated judges (the titular brethren) have decided to be proactive in their forced retirement.  We first meet them as they dispense courtyard justice to their fellow convicts, but it doesn’t take a long time until we’re shown their real game: an extortion scam in which they entrap rich men through personal ads placed in newspapers of interest to the gay community, then threaten them with exposure once the pen-pal relationship deepens.

So far so good, but there’s another more surprising side to the novel as well: While the judges are conducting business from prison, a young federal congressmen is tapped by the CIA to become a presidential candidate on the single issue of national security.  They provide him with funding, and the assurance that national security will be a hot topic in the coming months.  The candidate simply has to go through the motions, and pretty soon he’s seen as the favourite come election time.

There’s a snag, though: As you may expect, the judges have snagged the congressman in their scheme, and the attempts of the CIA to protect their handpicked candidate ironically make matters even worse.  Pretty soon, the CIA is trying to exert leverage on the incarcerated judges, but it’s not clear who’s got the advantage…

As the above plot summary may suggest, the book’s biggest problem is that there are no obvious characters to cheer for.  Sure, the congressman is being exploited for minor personal foibles; but he’s solidly at the mercy of his CIA puppet-masters.  The CIA characters are far too powerful to be interesting, while the Brethren are just con artists with fancy résumés and their pet lawyer is too corrupt to be pitied even when bad things happen to him.  This accumulation of unlikable characters doesn’t make the novel uninteresting, but it certainly lessens the readers’ involvement in taking sides and hoping that it wins at the end.  Which such unpleasant forces at play, it feels like a demonstration of clever plotting more than an actually story to enjoy.

So it’s relatively good news to find out that, despite an uninvolving plot, The Brethren remains as readable as anything else Grisham has done.  There are some amusing plot turns as the CIA’s own incompetence (and acts-of-God such as a plane nearly crash-landing) ends up making a fairly simple situation even worse.  It’s not as much of a page-turner, but it sustains a definite narrative momentum, and readers won’t have any trouble following the twisted conclusion as unlikely characters are rewarded for their brinkmanship.  Ironically, this may be one of Grisham’s happiest ending yet… at least for the characters in the story.

For those following the evolution of Grisham’s career, there are a few points of interest in The Brethren.  For the first time, Grisham tackles political process issues: much of the novel is dedicated to a demonstration of how massive campaign contributions can alter the course of a presidential candidacy, how the CIA deals with the political apparatus (or rather how it would like to deal with it) and how a political campaign goes.  This novel spends a lot of time in Washington, and that in turn sets the stage for later more overtly thriller-oriented novels like The Broker.  Meanwhile, the emphasis on money once again reflects one of Grisham’s perennial themes.

For those who criticize Grisham for “the same old plot” over and over again, The Brethern seems custom-designed to earn the author a bit of leeway, prefiguring the even more dramatic departures from formula that would follow this novel.  It may not rank as one of his finest efforts, but it manages to be interesting, which is already not so bad.

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