I can’t help feeling that John Grisham is getting bored. Perhaps that’s an inevitability when you’ve sold 300 million books, and own three houses and a private jet – I don’t know. Cottoned by enormous wealth and internal fame, would anyone’s work begin to suffer in quality? Would we all instead begin to write only about ourselves in a thinly veiled manner? Like Camino Island (2017), the quiet beachfront neighbourhood in which Bruce Cable and his atelier of authors live in Camino Winds seems to be a reflection of Amelia Island, in Florida – home to Grisham in the Summer months, and one naturally presumes that Cable’s atelier of wealthy authors might just be caricatures of his well-healed neighbours.
The characters seem to lack any of the colour, audacity, ‘moral duty’ that we come across in earlier novels. Bookshop owner Bruce Cable’s ‘quirkiness’ appears to entirely revolve around his ‘open marriage’ which is mentioned at every possible opportunity, his French wife, and the oh-so-snobbish book parties featuring authors from the island. Mercer Mann the would-be sleuth from the previous novel is barely mentioned, but for the fact she now has a boyfriend and a dog (yes that really is as interesting as it gets). Myra Beckwith and Leigh Traine, the seventy-year-old lesbian Romance novelists, appear only briefly and smack of a self-interested editor telling Grisham to put in ‘a couple characters to keep the PC brigade happy’; they are sheer cartoons (one grossly fat with purple hair and an abrasive tongue, the other diminutive in all senses). Bob Cobb, the ex-con who writes books about prison-violence, lacks any of the charm that should be a given of any American ‘outlaw’ in a post-John Wayne era; rather than being seen permanently with fedora, revolver and stallion, he is an ugly lech. And to finish off, Nick Sutton, the part-time Bookshop intern/student who is so lacklustre that he would make even the most boring dullard at Durham as flamboyant and compelling as Roger Stone.
As literary works go, its fine – a little dreary at times and there is never any real uptake in the leisurely pace of the story. Indeed, given that the setting of the book involves a vicious hurricane overtaking Florida, it is somewhat ironic how slow-paced the storyline is. Camino Island at least had an interesting premise – the theft of $25m worth of F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from a secure vault underneath Princeton – in this novel we are promised a murder. However, the murder itself is just so insipid: few readers will actually care about the perpetrator given that the victim – another novelist, Nelson Kerr – is, like Cable, Mann et al, universally interesting. Furthermore, the culprit’s reveal 150 pages later lacks any of the true shock-factor which Grisham himself is known for – not least Mitch discovering Bendini, Lambert and Locke’s true benefactors in The Firm (1991) (spoiler: the Morolto Mafia family).
In his earlier novels Grisham’s views on the world were crystallised in the characters and storyline. They were a call for action. A call for change in an un-cloyingly didactic sense. In the King of Torts (2002), the sneering Patton French boasts about his $50 million Gulfstream, his 200-foot yacht; his pupil Clay Carter becomes driven by dangerous greed, bankrupts a small housebuilding business, and is plummeted back down to earth in a truly Shakespearean-esque tragic fashion. It represents the author’s contempt for a type of Mass-Tort lawyer who cares far more about his own exorbitant fees than the aggrieved plaintiffs he supposedly represents, a topic especially relevant in the early 2000’s when Class-Action Lawyers such as William Lerach were increasingly been seen as extorting companies for their own personal gain. In A Time to Kill (1989), a Mississippi attorney defends Carl Lee – a black man who takes the law into his own hands and shoots dead the two white supremacists who animastically rape and beat his daughter – against personal danger to his own family at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan. The setting of the novel in the sticky and pungent summer of Mississippi is a metaphor for the fiery racial tensions between white and black people still rife in the Deep South in the late 20th century. In these novels, as with many others, Grisham clearly points out the value of the law for helping others if used correctly and ‘morally.’
There is no such message in Camino Winds, there is no call for action, an elucidation of injustice, an explanation of how to act. Few readers would feverishly and frenziedly wait for the next page in this novel; neither the sense of suspense nor the stakes themselves are ever particularly high.
The ending of the story is so quick and unexciting that it reads like an accountant’s report.
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