They call themselves the Brethren: three disgraced former judges doing time in a Florida federal prison.
One was sent up for tax evasion. Another, for skimming bingo profits. And the third, for a career-ending drunken joyride.
Meeting daily in the prison law library, taking exercise walks in their boxer shorts, these judges-turned-felons can reminisce about old court cases, dispense a little jailhouse justice, and contemplate where their lives went wrong.
Or they can use their time in prison to get very rich -- very fast. And so they sit, sprawled in the prison library, furiously writing letters, fine-tuning a wickedly brilliant extortion scam ... while events outside their prison walls begin to erupt.
A bizarre presidential election is holding the nation in its grips -- and a powerful government figure is pulling some very hidden strings. For the Brethren, the timing couldn't be better. Because they've just found the perfect victim...
John Grisham's novels have all been so systematically successful that it is easy to forget he is just one man toiling away silently with a pen, experimenting and improving with each book. While not as gifted a prose stylist as Scott Turow, Grisham is among the best plotters in the thriller business, and he infuses his books with a moral valence and creative vision that set them apart from their peers.
The Brethren is in many respects his most daring book yet. The novel grows from two separate subplots. In the first, three imprisoned ex-judges (the "brethren" in the title), frustrated by their loss of power and influence, concoct an elaborate blackmail scheme that preys on wealthy, closeted gay men. The second story traces the rise of presidential candidate Aaron Lake, a puppet essentially created by CIA director Teddy Maynard to fulfill Maynard's plans for restoring the power of his beleaguered agency.
Grisham's tight control of the two meandering threads leaves the reader guessing through most of the opening chapters how and when these two worlds will collide. Also impressive is Grisham's careful portraiture. Justice Hatlee Beech in particular is a fascinating, tragic anti-hero: a millionaire judge with an appointment for life who was rendered divorced, bankrupt, and friendless after his conviction for a drunk-driving homicide.
The book's cynical view of presidential politics and criminal justice casts a somewhat gloomy shadow over the tale. CIA director Teddy Maynard is an all-powerful demon with absolute knowledge and control of the public will and public funds. Even his candidate, Congressman Lake, is a pawn in Maynard's egomaniacal game of ad campaigns, illicit contributions, and international intrigue. In the end, The Brethren marks a transition in Grisham's career toward a more thoughtful narrative style with less interest in the big-payoff blockbuster ending. But that's not to say that the last 50 pages won't keep your reading light turned on late. --Patrick O'Kelley