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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Racketeer’

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THE RACKETEER
By John Grisham
Doubleday, $28.95, 340 pages

The new John Grisham novel gets three F's -- one for fascinating, another one for facile and a third for fun. In "The Racketeer," Mr. Grisham treats his legions of faithful readers to yet another sure-fire, hard-to-put-down, story-driven thriller. That he does not also provide the reader with the literary equivalent of an earth-moving experience is by this point in Mr. Grisham's productive, prolific career basically beside the point. There are 225 million copies of his books in print. Need I say more? You want the earth to move? Read Dostoyevsky, Faulkner -- or early Jim Harrison.

The racketeer of the title is Malcolm Bannister, a 43-year-old disbarred black lawyer who is halfway through a 10-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit. A small-time, small-town attorney from Winchester, Va., Malcolm had agreed, as a favor to a "law school pal," to handle a seemingly straightforward legal matter for a client Malcolm had never met. When the client turned out to be dirty, the Feds nailed everyone in the chain, regardless of culpability.

Up to this point, Malcolm Bannister had been a model citizen. A former Marine, he had made his parents -- his late mother and his Virginia state- trooper father -- proud. He'd also made himself and his wife, a lovely woman who'd given him a lovely son, proud. But, as a result of the government's mendacity, when we meet Malcolm he's lost his now ex-wife, the 11-year-old son he adores, the respect of his father (a rigid man from the where-there's-smoke-there's-fire school) and his profession. In other words, Malcolm has lost his life. Not surprisingly, he is one bitter man.

Then fortune finally smiles on. A federal judge in Roanoke, Va., is found murdered in his vacation cabin, along with an unclothed young woman not his wife and a good-sized, very empty safe.

Malcolm did not know the judge, nor had he ever appeared before him, but he does know who killed him. This, Malcolm instantly realizes, is his ticket to freedom. It is called Rule 35 (of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure) which, according to Malcolm and in fact, " provides the only mechanism for the commutation of a prison sentence. Its logic is brilliant and fits my situation perfectly. If an inmate can solve another crime, then the inmate's sentence can be reduced."

That's what Malcolm wants, but not all he wants. He also wants a new face, entry into the Federal Witness Protection Program and the $150,000 reward being offered for information leading to the judge's murderer. With that, John Grisham and Malcolm Bannister, now known as Max Reed Baldwin, are off and running.

Mr. Grisham does his usual excellent job of taking us through the next steps as Malcolm/Max: convinces the skeptical Feds that this is not another con job; gets a new face and voice; and fades off into the sunsets of Jamaica, Antigua and other points Caribbean. But Max is not simply enjoying his newfound freedom. He is buying himself an insurance policy in case the killer's family members -- all deeply involved in the drug business -- come after him.

The Feds, of course, are (justly) proud of their ability to protect their star witnesses, but their star witness remembers only too well that this is the same government that at his trial conveniently forgot that its oath is to seek justice, not just convictions. He is determined to be his own witness protection program.

Max/Malcolm is aided in his quest by Vanessa, a beautiful youngish woman he met while she was visiting her brother in prison but playing eye chess with Malcolm. They make a formidable and most resilient pair of plotters as they put his plan into gear. However, after a while their heroics resemble those in a James Bond book, but by that point the reader (this one, certainly) does not care. I dearly hope this is another John Grisham book that makes it onto the big screen. (Let's see, Denzel and Halle? Perfect.) Oh, and for those who like unpredictable endings, "The Racketeer" has a doozy.

One of the prizes that come in any box labeled John Grisham is an insider's view of an important subject, in this case the American criminal justice system. Mr. Grisham may not have practiced law for very long before deciding to devote himself to writing full time, but most of his time in court was spent doing criminal defense work and it shows in "The Racketeer" as well as in other novels and in his non fiction book "An Innocent Man."

For the record, any reader who thinks the author may have stretched the truth, in his portrayal of how eagerly (and illegally) federal prosecutors went after Malcolm Bannister need only to look up the now-infamous case, United States v. Theodore Stevens, involving Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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