Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Review of The Broker by John Grisham

After several forays into unfamiliar genres (A Painted House, Skipping Christmas, and Bleachers), author John Grisham, in his latest work, decided to return to the type of novel that first made him famous. With The Broker, Grisham and his fans would presumably be on familiar territory. Is the main character a lawyer or former lawyer? Check. Does that main character now find himself in a life-threatening situation that also involves the U.S. government and a few shadowy agencies? Check. Does the main character have to rely on his wits and some of the skills he acquired while at the height of power in an attempt to resolve the situation? Check. In other words, The Broker sounds like it could be just the kind of story that most Grisham fans have come to expect from the author.

The novel starts out in media res -- in the middle of things. Grisham takes readers to the Oval Office where the outgoing President and his Chief of Staff are spending their final few hours in office deciding which of the President's old cronies should be given a new lease on life through a presidential pardon. As they discuss the various candidates, they are notified that an unexpected visitor is heading to the White House: Teddy Maynard, the ancient, wheelchair-bound head of the CIA. When Maynard gets there, he requests that the President issue a pardon to one Joel Backman.

From the ensuing discussion, the reader learns that Backman was once one of the biggest players in Washington, D.C. Even though he wasn't a politician himself, he pulled the strings that made the politicians move. He was the head of a high-powered law firm, but spend most of his time lobbying for big-name clients from around the world.

Backman is now in a federal maximum security prison because of his involvement in some kind of plot to sell control of a spy satellite system to the highest bidding government. Among the potential buyers included Russia, China, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

The President agrees to the pardon, mostly because it comes with a $3 million dollar "thank you" attached to it. He can't figure out why Maynard would be so interested in letting someone like Backman out on the streets, but the Chief of Staff pieces it together for him. Backman's pardon would stipulate that he stay out of the United States for the rest of his life. The CIA would leak word of Backman's whereabouts to the international intelligence community, and then they would sit back to see which countries sent out assassins to try to kill Backman. This would show the CIA exactly who was interested in the spy satellite system to begin with.

Once Backman gets out of prison, he is whisked away on a military plane to Italy, where the CIA make some half-hearted efforts to get him to volunteer the information they're after. Backman refuses to say anything, and is finally taken to his new quarters. His first stop is in a small town called Treviso. His handler is a man named Luigi, who insists that Backman play by his rules or risk getting killed. In order to keep Backman scared, Luigi soon hints that they have been discovered. They move on to Bologna, where they settle in for the time being.

Backman has been given a new name (Marco Lazzeri), and a new background. He is made to study Italian for several hours each day with a private tutor. When he's not studying, he is free to roam around the streets of Bologna (always with a few CIA agents on his tail, of course).

As the plot unfolds, we get more information about the spy satellite system, as well as some of the agencies that want Backman dead. Backman eventually realizes that the CIA doesn't really have his best interests in mind, so he quietly makes contact with his son back in Virginia and enlists his help. Things will finally come to a head and force Backman to ditch Bologna and run for his life. Where and how the final showdown takes place might surprise you.

Although The Broker has achieved pretty good success in terms of sheer sales, the novel itself has received mixed reviews from both critics and fans alike. After reading the book, I can understand why. The entire work is unevenly paced, making it not quite the page-turner that Grisham fans might expect.

While the story starts out promisingly enough, Grisham soon takes a major detour in order to show the reader how Backman is trying to adjust to life in Italy. This detour might have been welcome to a certain extent, but I think Grisham makes a major miscalculation as to how much time to spend on the subject. So the reader is subjected to chapter after chapter of nothing but Backman's Italian lessons, lunches with Luigi, and walks around Bologna. Seriously: these chapters about Backman studying with his tutor make up a substantial portion of the book, yet they do not serve to advance the plot along at all! Sure, we need to know by the end of the novel that Backman has picked up a sufficient amount of Italian, but that could have been accomplished in just a few pages -- or even chapters -- at the most.

There are several other problems that I had with the book. For instance, there's at least one character (Rudolph the university professor) who appears in the story merely as a convenient device to help Backman out. In addition, we are introduced to a couple of other characters (Sammy Tin and a female Chinese assassin) for seemingly no reason at all, as they don't even figure in the plot. And finally, Backman simply isn't a very likable or sympathetic character at all. I never warmed to him, he doesn't really do anything to redeem himself once he gets out of prison, and I frankly didn't care if the assassins got to him or not. This is not what you want out of a main character.

Without giving away the ending, I will say that it seemed rather contrived. That's because nothing Backman did in Italy contributed to anything that happened in the final scenes. In other words, he pretty much could have pulled off the same ending a few days after he left prison, so I'm not sure why readers have to spend a few months with him in Italy.

Overall, I have to say that The Broker is not one of Grisham's best efforts. In fact, I think all but the most diehard fans will be disappointed in the lack of suspense or action in this book.

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