The Broker, John Grisham

Dell, 2005, 422 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24158-8

It must be good to be John Grisham. Sign a contract with a publisher, take a long trip to Italy, see the local sights, write a novel about the experience. Final step: Profit, as the book sells zillions.

It’s not such a bad deal even for us readers: Grisham hasn’t allowed success to destroy his ability to write competent thrillers, and some will even argue that the latter-period Grisham is even better than what his first few novels promised. While his fiction still revolves around familiar themes (lawyers, money, ethical concerns), he has also shown willingness to stretch the envelope a bit and play around with different elements. Grisham has been able to deliver both what his readers expect, and -presumably- what he’ s been wanting to write.

The Broker stretches the Grisham oeuvre in two different ways. For one thing, it’s closer to a straight-up thriller than to the type of judicial thriller that Grisham readers are used to. The story revolves around a complex baiting game in which the US government frees a prisoner with too many secrets in order to find out who’s most keenly interested in killing him. Spy satellites and foreign interests are involved.

But the prisoner has no intention of being so cooperative in his own demise. Initially led by US government contacts to the sunny skies of a Northern Italy city, our protagonist soon starts making other plan. But not too quickly, which leads us to Grisham’s second distinctive departure for this novel: The Broker often reads as a travelogue of northeastern Italy as the action grinds to a halt and our protagonist plays tourist.

It’s not unpleasant, mind you: Even when he’s not busy advancing the plot, Grisham writes engagingly enough that even descriptions of churches and small cafés are interesting. The atmosphere of the novel, even loosely wrapped in a thriller outline, is one that feels like a vacation. Even as our protagonist’s enemies close in, as he rebels against his minders and turns the tables on the US government, The Broker is the very definition of escapist entertainment. I suspect that not all readers will be so lenient, but Grisham has a gift for reasonably entertaining prose. If that takes the form of a travel memoir with thriller bookends, well, so be it. It’s all fun to read anyway.

More serious problems arise when considering the overall MacGuffin that precipitates the plot: Some kind of ultra-secret satellite network that can be hacked by a bunch of post-grads, while mystifying both the US intelligence services and their hackers. There’s a reason why Grisham doesn’t dwell all that much on those background thriller elements: They don’t make much sense.

But if you’re the forgiving type, as you probably need to be in order to enjoy this novel to the fullest, it’s worth ignoring the wobbly setup and the lengthy travelogue to get to the final section of the novel, which hails back to the types of high-stakes negotiations and bluffing games that formed the backbone of previous Grisham novels. Once again, it leads to a fuzzy moral conclusion where (Grisham seems to argue) it’s best to run away without money than remain a slave of the system, or something like that. Someone could do a thesis on how many of Grisham’s novels conclude with “and then he/she/they ran away”.

But if you’ve been following the Grisham oeuvre so far, The Broker remains a new and interesting brick in the wall. It’s got most of the Grisham pet obsessions and introduces a number of new wrinkles that may very well play out in future novels. It’s not quite what most people will expect, but it’s a lot of fun to read.

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