Think John Grisham and you inevitably think lawyers, prosecution, defence, juries, and courtroom drama.
Camino Island is therefore going to come as a bit of a shock to his legions of fans who anticipate more of the same.
For this latest offering contains absolutely none of these. Instead, it features a heist, some nasty double crossing, and a romance. Yes, a romance – of sorts. And it is set in the world of rare books.
While most readers will know of Grisham’s legal background, fewer are likely to be aware that he and his wife, Renee Jones, are avid collectors of first editions by eminent American writers like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. And it is the last that is the focus of the unusual heist that kickstarts this semi-thriller.
The Fitzgerald manuscripts are held in Ivy League Princeton University, a priceless collection of just five books. Grisham says that he is a lazy researcher and went nowhere near the real Firestone Library at the university for fear of being accused of giving people ideas!
Nonetheless, the first section of the book offers a pretty convincing, and suitably nailbiting, account of the heist itself and the proficient but unpleasant gang that plan and execute it. The manuscripts are duly stolen, the gang members disperse, and at this point the action shifts to Camino Island, a 16km-long barrier strip just north of Jacksonville, Florida.
Bruce Cable is a book dealer and the centre of the local literary and arty community on the island. His entry into the world of book selling and dealing is accidental – family money and a chance encounter set him off on a career that proves more lucrative and interesting than he had anticipated. Part of his legacy included some rare autographed first editions. On realising their value, Bruce Cable bookseller becomes Bruce Cable bookdealer. The question is, is he also Bruce Cable book-dealing-criminal?
The second strand of the plot is Mercer Mann, a writer with one successful book behind her who used to spend summers on Camino Island with her much loved grandmother, Tessa.
Mercer has an overdue novel to finish and an ownership interest in her grandmother’s cottage that would allow her to stay there for six months under the pretext of finishing her next book. She is also in debt. Who better then to blend into the local literary scene and feed information back to Princeton’s insurance investigators? Who better to infiltrate Bruce’s private world and exploit his notorious reputation as a philanderer? Will she/won’t she? And is Bruce as crooked as the investigators suspect?
It seems almost shocking to write that Grisham has virtually written a summer romance story but that is what Camino Island effectively becomes. And while entertaining, it is a summer romance pretty much filled with cliches.
Bruce is a magnetic, flamboyant character in his suits and bow ties, who enjoys an open marriage with his partner Noelle. Mercer is young, naive, talented, and curious but ultimately (and is this naming deliberate?) a mercenary.
As for the literary and arty milieu of Camino Island, Grisham cannot resist parodying their pretentiousness. Alongside Bruce stand a rather bitchy couple, Myra Beckwith and Leigh Trane, the former a hugely successful writer of romance porn and the latter a writer of incomprehensible arty nonsense that nobody reads and is impossible to sell. (Are there shades of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas here? Probably.) Add in a dose of writer’s block and some severe alcoholism and the literary scene begins to seem familiar.
So, what does this strange departure from familiar Grisham territory add up to?
The first thing I need to say about Camino Island is that I enjoyed reading it. There is, in my view, a thoroughly deserved place in anyone’s reading for a good page turner and, while not being as addictive as a number of his legal thrillers, Grisham manages to keep the reader online throughout.
I would hesitate to call these an engaging bunch of characters but they are not without interest and despite their somewhat cliched origins, Grisham is a hugely accomplished writer whose dialogue fills any scene with life.
I also enjoyed his sideswipes at the literary world embodied by Leigh and Myra:
“So you write together?” Mercer asked.
“She writes it,” Leigh said quickly, as if to distance herself. “We work on the story together, which takes about ten minutes, then she grinds it out. Or we used to.”
“Leigh’s too much of a snob to touch it. She’ll damned sure touch the money though.”
“Now Myra,” Leigh said with a smile.
Myra sucked in a lung full and blew a cloud over her shoulder. “Those were the days. We cranked out a hundred books under a dozen names and couldn’t write ’em fast enough. The dirtier the better. You should try one. Pure filth.”
So there are pleasures a plenty to be had from this unexpected Grisham and it will certainly be a beach read of the summer.
But, somehow, I confess I expected more, especially from the ending. But to tell you exactly what would be to give too much away.
Author: John Grisham
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, crime fiction