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'The Brethren' by John Grisham

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There are two lies. There is the one about never having eaten fast food. The other, rather similar, is never having read a John Grisham novel.

After ten so-so efforts, Grisham can effortlessly turn out work that is pithy, facile and digestible. The 370 pages of this novel can be pleasantly assimilated in three hours. They will ease many a long airport wait.

Grisham has again turned his attentions to something 'new' in the American legal galaxy. Here there is a picaresque1 blending of two bafflingly disparate plot lines, one stemming from the activities of three high-life low-lifes in federal prison, the other owing more to Tom Clancy pulp fiction.

In Trumble prison, we find three disgraced judicial officers ranging from JP to former chief justice of California. In the blue corner, and thrust upon the presidential campaign trail, we have Aaron Lake, the John McCain-like unknown congressman from Arizona.

The judges are inside, if that is the right word, for felonies ranging from tax fraud to auto-manslaughter. In criminology terms, they have had the book thrown at them. Their real punishment lies in the loss of status and the opportunity to practise their professional skills. But the devil makes work for idle judges.

As for Lake, he is a two-dimensional cipher, a plastic icon chasing the White House only because the gnarled CIA director (in a wheelchair, of course) so orders. Russia is re-arming. A new Ronald Reagan is required to decimate the wimpish family-value hopefuls massing at the sunset of the Clinton era. Lake provides the speeches; the agency delivers the accompanying world crises.

We know that the real McCain has the right stuff; Bush Jr merely has money in spades. Grisham has perversely decreed that Lake will, because of his sudden ersatz popularity with the military industrial complex, become overly endowed with megabucks. Then he will become the first CIA presidential clone in history - if not in five-inch-thick fantasy thrillers.

How, then, can these crazily disparate worlds intersect? Well, the judges still hold court for fellow prisoners while working up a lucrative extortion scam aimed at middle-class paedophiles on the outside. Like the three witches of Macbeth, these judges, with the help of a brain-dead lawyer called Trevor, control and milk their victims from their prison cells. In the process they accidentally ensnare - surprise surprise - Aaron Lake, our wholesome Congressman from Arizona. The rest you can practically guess.

Grisham knows just how to enthral then get out quick. There are some clever and witty moments, though the mismatch of world destruction and scurrilous fraud does begin to wear thin.

The CIA triumphs, Trevor gets shot where his brain should have been, the judges get their just deserts and the reader won't really give a toss. But we can tick super-politics and incarcerated judicial schemers off the Grisham hit list. Will this intrepid author now move on to dwarf bailiffs in Alaska? Probably.

1Picaresque means fiction whose central character is usually dishonest but appealing.

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