Books Magazine


By T.v. Locicero

Sorry, if you’ve dropped by here at all this year, you’ve found the same damn self-serving post day after day, week after week, month after month. And so you probably concluded that I was either dead or too busy to blog. Fortunately it was the latter.

I’ve been putting the finishing touches (always a treacherous trap for me ) to a couple of new crime novels, in what I’m calling The detroit im dyin Trilogy. So more about these new books later.

Right now I’d like to offer some thoughts on two novels that have battled lately for those coveted top spots on the NY Times hardcover bestseller list: John Grisham’s recently released legal thriller The Racketeer and Gillian Flynn’s still wildly popular gender thriller, Gone Girl. And I’ll do this in two parts

First, two obvious questions: What do these two have that so many other novels lack? And what, if anything (beside their lodging in Thrillerland) might they share with each other? Because the second is easier than the first, I’ll start there.

So both novels have unreliable first-person narrators. The Racketeer has one, the disgraced attorney Malcolm Bannister. In a minimum security prison as the story opens, he is half-way through a stiff 10-year sentence for a crime of fraud he says he did not commit. Gone Girl has two narrators, the warring married protagonists Nick and Amy Dunne, both clearly not to be trusted, Amy so much so that her diary entries, which carry forward her side of things for the first half of the book, are subsequently revealed to be false and calculated to legally ensnare her husband.

Now while Bannister is also less-than-reliable, he is so in ways more subtle. And it is not his claim of innocence that makes the defrocked lawyer untrustworthy. In fact, we end up buying his story that he was unfortunately caught up in a criminal conspiracy in which he was not actually culpable. No, rather it’s a variety of lies about other stuff that make Bannister unreliable. Lies sprinkled here and there in the narrative, lies of both omission and commission.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the lies he tells FBI agents, prosecutors and others. Those fibs are often transparent and used, along with the information he withholds from law enforcement, to further the intricate plot he has hatched during all those long months and years in prison. See, Bannister, who manages the prison library and has earned a rep as an effective jailhouse lawyer by securing more than one inmate’s freedom, has a plan to win his own release. And once initiated it works like a charm.

Bannister convinces authorities that he knows the identity of the killer of a recently murdered federal judge and gives them the name of Quinn Rucker, the head of a major drug gang “with contacts up and down the East Coast.” Quinn, he says, was his best friend in prison until the guy walked away from the camp a few months back.

So Bannister orchestrates his own move out of prison and into the government’s witness protection program, with a $150,000 reward, a brand new identity complete with the requisite documents to go wherever he pleases, a pleasant beachside apartment in Florida and a job if he wants it. He soon changes his name to Max Baldwin, and after a plastic surgeon also changes his face, he goes rogue.

At first it appears that that he’s been freaked that his cover has been blown, that Quinn Rucker has somehow learned his new name and whereabouts. And so he’s off running, here and there, to Jamaica and Antigua, Virginia and even back briefly to his Florida apartment.

He’s always one jump ahead of his former FBI handlers and presumably the Rucker gang, but it’s never clear exactly what he’s doing. Only much later will we learn that it’s all part of an ingenious plot.

At this point I should tell you that The Racketeer also has another narrator, third person, not first, the more or less classic omniscient third, which the crafty Grisham slips into on occasion for a few paragraphs, pages or chapters. He does this whenever he wants to present information that is beyond the ken of his almost full-time narrator, Bannister/Baldwin, and this shift allows the imparting of data that moves the story along more effectively, making it richer and more compelling.

Now while these narrative shifts can at times be jarring and certainly break some classic rules of fiction, after a while the reader gets used to them and the payoff—a stronger, more detailed story—makes them seem worthwhile. Not for nothing has the perennially best-selling Grisham been repeatedly called a “master storyteller.” And to be honest, I detected no lies or intentional misleading in these third person passages.

So what are the lies that make Bannister/Baldwin a truly untrustworthy narrator? They are the ones he tells the reader. Yes, along the way the scheming lawyer drops occasional bits of info and brief comments tinged with untruth, the real nature and purpose of which we will learn only in the latter stages of the story. So why would the main narrator of this book want to fool the folks who’ve chosen to read his story? For a definitive answer you’ll have to ask his creator, Mr. Grisham.

But my guess is that Grisham’s intention was to let his narrator mislead and mystify his readers for their own good, to make the experience of reading this novel ever more enthralling as we try to figure out what the hell his protagonist is up to. Naturally he wants this to last as long as possible, until the reader finally reaches that remarkably satisfying conclusion in which all the myriad loose ends are tied up neatly and all the characters get their more or less just deserts.

Yes, The Racketeer is a legal thriller—with few exceptions that’s what Grisham writes. But in this one the author goes to considerable lengths to disguise the true nature of his book’s sub-genre. It’s also a caper novel, and to put off full disclosure for as long as possible, Grisham has his first-person narrator lie, mislead and fool the reader every once in a while.

So what if this scheming ex-attorney is just a naturally talented story spinner? A fellow who instinctively knows that to tell a good page-turning tale, there are moments when you need to withhold information, to keep it unspoken until the time to disclose is right?

Well, withholding is one thing; it’s what many a good storyteller often chooses to do. But lying, or deliberately misleading is quite something else. It’s also called cheating, and the problem with cheating is that when it’s finally exposed, it tends to spoil the experience the book provides. Here are a few examples of Grisham’s cheating.

On page 139, while watching on TV as a dull and unimpressive U.S. Attorney named Stanley Mumphrey announces the indictment of Quinn Rucker, Bannister/Baldwin says, “The thought crosses my mind that, with Stanley in charge, Quinn may have a fighting chance after all.”

But, no, that particular thought would not have occurred to Bannister/Baldwin, because the narrator knows something we don’t know at that point: exactly what will happen to his old friend Quinn.

Fifteen pages later Bannister/Baldwin tells us about a comely gal for whom he’s carrying a torch. He met Vanessa Young at the prison when she was visiting her brother, another inmate, and then exchanged letters with her. But, he says, “it became painfully obvious, at least to me, that my infatuation with Vanessa was not exactly a two-way street.”

This passage about Vanessa lasts just a few brief paragraphs, but they withhold a good deal of information and, more importantly, they mislead: as we eventually learn, she is every bit into him as he is into her, and there is way more to their connection than lustful romance.

And finally, Chapter 26 begins, “I sleep with a gun…” Well, now Bannister/Baldwin may be sleeping with that Beretta he mentions, but it is not, as he clearly implies, because the Rucker clan is hot on his heels. As we learn later, he knows there is no one to fear.

There are many more examples to site, but you get the idea.

In books like this one, there is always a battle of wits going on. More than one, in fact, between characters in the story itself, but also one between the author and the reader. The reader is always trying to figure where the author is heading with his story, and the author is trying to keep the reader guessing for as long as possible.

Now there are accepted rules for this kind of match, the most basic and important of which is that, while withholding info is generally okay, prevaricating and misleading are not. And in The Racketeer Grisham breaks this rule several times. And of course it matters not at all that his unreliable narrator is the one doing the lying and the cheating. As we are reminded every time the narrative slides into the omniscient third, from start to finish this is Grisham’s concoction.

So why is The Racketeer parked solidly at or near the top of the bestseller lists? Surely, first of all because Grisham books are almost always there. For decades he’s enjoyed enormous success and by now has a mass of dedicated readers who, with little or no encouragement, will read almost anything he publishes.

But this book in particular? Certainly, as with many a caper story, there is the lure of a huge pot of untraceable ill-gotten gain at the conclusion. That always seems irresistible, but especially so with our current fascination, in a time of global financial flux and perhaps calamity.

Then there’s that trusty old standby: the deeply satisfying comeuppance of corporate greed and corruption. Grisham seems to be a genuinely good sort who cares about the right things and generally writes stories that expose the bad and support the good.

And how about this gender-tinged thought from one of my most insightful female friends: “I wonder if there isn’t something intrinsically masculine going on. I know I’m not supposed to say such things! But there is a comforting fantasy in Grisham, I think, of men doing the wrong thing and yet still being good guys, worthy of love and intrinsically right.”

Finally, and perhaps most telling: despite its flaws, this book offers the timeless power of good storytelling. That’s something else it shares with Flynn’s Gone Girl. And next time I’ll take a close look at that sensationally successful novel.

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