Un­ex­pected fun

Plea­sures a-plenty to be had from this very dif­fer­ent Gr­isham.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - Re­view by MARTIN SPICE star2@thes­tar.com.my

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.

Camino Is­land Au­thor: Pub­lisher:

John Gr­isham Hod­der & Stoughton, crime fic­tion

Photo: twit­ter. com/JohnGr­isham

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