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The Brethren

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Another John Grisham novel. For many, that's an event to celebrate—most of the time. The Chamber and a couple of Grisham's other books have failed to excite the masses. In fact, his first novel, A Time to Kill, was published initially in paperback apparently because it was not perceived as commercial enough to be successful. Grisham wrote The Firm in response, and the legal thriller genre took off.

As I read The Brethren, I wondered which John Grisham would show up. Would this one be written by the real John Grisham who has mixed writing skill with storytelling ability to the point of creating bonafide literature a la Faulkner, or by the Grisham who writes for movie rights?

After finishing The Brethren, the impression is that the novel is a mix of Grisham's styles, but it leans predominantly on those enhancing saleability. The story will translate easily to the silver screen. As is almost always the case, there are unexpected twists, but the plot is somewhat more predictable than many of Grisham's other novels. The premise of the novel, however, is fascinating.

Three judges sentenced to a low-security federal prison camp near Jacksonville, Fla., have devised a diversion to amuse themselves and make money. They place advertisements in the personals of magazines for gay men. The object is to entice men who want to hide their homosexuality into becoming pen pals. The judges use fictitious characters to correspond with those who respond to the ads while having an accomplice on the outside find out if any of the pen pals are wealthy. When they find one that fits the description, the judges set about blackmailing him with the threat of exposing his sexual orientation to the public.

The three judges are known as the Brethren at Trumble federal prison camp, where they serve as an informal tribunal to settle prisoners' disputes and constitute a close-knit club that does everything together, from walking on the prison's track to spending hour upon hour perfecting their scam.

The Brethren's blackmail scheme is simple enough at first, and they begin to make real money despite the bumbling assistance of their drunken lawyer, Trevor Carson, whose idea of a hard day at the office is to spend less than half of it at Pete's Bar and Grill. As the lawyer for the three judges—Finn Yarber , Joe Roy Spicer and Hatlee Beech—Carson is charged with mailing the judge's letters to the scheme's victims, picking up the responses and depositing the money sent by the victims in a Bahamian bank account. He gets to scoop off a third of the ill-gotten gains for himself.

In a parallel story, Congressman Aaron Lake is hand-picked by CIA Director Teddy Maynard to become president of the United States. Maynard wants a president who supports a strong military defense and is willing to increase government spending to build one. Million of dollars obtained by the CIA from various sources are poured into Aaron Lake's campaign, and he becomes the front-runner very quickly. He has been carefully investigated by the CIA, which has deemed Lake clean of any activity that might derail his run for the White House.

The background investigation missed an activity. One night, when Lake is in Washington between campaign stops, he sneaks out to a Mailboxes 'R Us location, where he picks up correspondence he has received from the Brethren. The ad in the gay magazine has reeled in a possible blackmail victim who will prove to be truly troublesome for the Brethren. The CIA quickly discovers the secret mailbox and soon learns that Lake has written to one of the Brethren's fictitious gay men.

While Lake crisscrosses the country from one successful primary to another, the CIA tries to find a way to save its candidate who doesn't even know he is trapped by the judges' scheme. You can almost smell the sea air as you follow Carson around Neptune Beach, Fla., to the Bahamas and other tropical islands while he drinks his way through hiding his and the judges' money. He does not know that the CIA has decided to use him to get to the Brethren.

How do the Brethren deal with catching a presidential candidate in their net? Is Lake successfully protected from the Brethren's scheme? Does the CIA succeed in getting its candidate elected president?

Aren't you just dying to know the answers? Just as the Brethren sit in judgment at the prison camp, you get to sit in judgment of The Brethren. What is your verdict? Let me know after you sound the gavel.

Journal Date: 
Saturday, July 1, 2000

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