As the jaw-dropping success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has proved, elegant writing need not be an ingredient in keeping thriller-readers happy. The days when Graham Greene and Eric Ambler polished the prose of their "entertainments" as assiduously as any literary novel seem ever more distant. And one writer who has never let carefully textured writing get in the way of page-turning is John Grisham. The massive popularity of his 17 novels (and the workaday movies squeezed from them) is down to a killer combination of sheer story-telling nous and no-nonsense prose. Not to mention an authoritative way with the details of his milieux: usually, the American legal profession.
The Broker offers proof that Grisham has found other fish to fry. All the customary narrative muscles are exercised. Ostensibly, the plot concerns the slippery Washington power-broker Joel Backman being sprung from a high-security cell by a departing president, principally so that the CIA can observe who murders him first: the Russians, Israelis, Saudis or Chinese. But something more ambitious peeks out: this is Grisham's "State of the Nation" novel, masquerading as a chase thriller. Some excoriating points are made about high-level corruption in the US (and, inter alia, the UK), in between heads falling under car wheels. The crassness of the US president (here called Morgan) is one of Grisham's targets, and one suspects he hardly wants to add the present incumbent to his legion of readers.
While this new ambition may be applauded, the extra underpinnings come at a price. There are some surprisingly maladroit things here: the protagonist is given an identity in Bologna and obliged to learn Italian, so we're treated to language lessons, with each sentence in Italian painstakingly rendered in English. Fortunately, this odd notion doesn't cramp Grisham's skills. We wait as anxiously as Backman to see which nasty individuals will turn up to feed him to the fishes - after they first plough through his surveillance team. The Broker comes across more as an espionage novel than anything else, with its fudged identities, spycraft and international chicanery.
The scandal at its heart is presidential patronage, at a price. President Morgan (variously described as a moron or an idiot) is selling pardons to white-collar criminals, while his wheelchair-bound Head of Security, a poisonous J Edgar Hoover figure, digs the dirt on other presidents - including Morgan's successor.
A CIA-sanctioned killing takes place in London, with high-level British collusion; it seems this country has as much rotten in its state as the jaundiced US that Grisham gives us. Dan Sandberg, a Washington Post journo probing the Backman case, is given a modicum of sympathy, but it's a cold eye that Grisham casts on his country, and its president.
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