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The Broker    by John Grisham order for
by John Grisham
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

John Grisham never lets his readers down. With The Broker, he once again delivers a scenario that is complex, fast-paced and with unrelenting action. Leaves one breathless. In Joel Backman, Grisham has created an enigma. On the one hand (before the novel opens), he used to be a lawyer/power-broker in Washington, D.C.. Reviled and feared, he amassed a fortune by means of shady dealings. Fast forward to a broken man, who is pardoned from federal prison after serving six years of a twenty-year term. You can't help liking this guy and rooting for him.

The CIA sets Backman up for the kill, their main interest in the process being in seeing who actually does the deed. Sure he is on a hit list from more than one country, Backman starts running for his life. The reader runs with him. The bulk of his hiding is done in Bologna, Italy. (A short lesson in the Italian language is thrown in gratis.) While running with Backman through the novel, I couldn't help wishing I were doing so literally. He explores Bologna's alleys, back streets, cafes and coffee shops to exhaustion - I would love to see that city. Backman on the run shows cleverness and cunning the qualities that made him the powerful man he once was. He also begins to explore his own character and doesn't really like what he sees. Will Backman survive? Will he find real love after three wives and countless liaisons? Can he trust his life to the one son who will talk to him?

While the electronic language left me in the dust, I still basically understood what was going on as this exceptionally good plot unraveled. The energy flowing from the text stimulated my mind and kept me turning pages until just after three in the morning ... I just hope that soon, I'll be able to stop looking over my shoulder for villains who don't exist.

2nd Review by David Pitt:

If he'd written this novel early in his career, Grisham would probably have done it differently.

The Broker is the story of Joel Backman, a wealthy Washington power broker serving a sentence in a federal pen. Inexplicably pardoned by the President on his last day in office, he's set up with a new identity, but what he doesn't know is this: the CIA has sprung him from prison for a reason. Some of Backman's clients, see, discovered a way to disable a secret satellite surveillance system. The system is so secret, in fact, that the U.S government has no idea who owns the darn thing. The CIA figures Backman must know; they also figure the only way to do find out is to turn him loose, set him up with a new identity, and then leak his whereabouts to a variety of unfriendlies. When somebody turns up to kill Backman, the CIA will know who owns the satellites. (And as for Backman? Well, he'll die, of course. Them's the breaks.)

The satellite system is your classic McGuffin, of course, a way to get the engine going. The real story is Backman's, and Grisham tells it very well. Joel's a man who's got to give up the only life he ever knew, to become an entirely different person in a foreign country. He's a walking target, a pawn in a deadly game of chess, a puppet who doesn't know someone else is pulling the strings -- you pick the metaphor, they all work nicely.

The CIA's plan is extremely devious, and, in the old days, Grisham might have focused on the conspirators and their evil shenanigans. (If you're not familiar with the early works of John Grisham, they're mostly about conspiracies.) Instead, he zooms in on Backman, and follows the broker as he tries to become a new man with a new name in a new country; and then as he tries desperately to find a way to save his own life when he doesn't know who to trust. Everything else -- the disgraced former President, the cunning new President, the ruthless CIA director, the reporter who's dangerously close to blowing the whole scheme wide open -- takes a back seat to the stranger-in-a-strange-land story, and that is entirely the right way to approach the novel.

Grisham tells Joel's story by showing us the small details: learning to place a restaurant order in a new language; getting the hang of living within a small (by which I mean teensy weensy) budget; figuring out who he is, now that he isn't Joel Backman anymore. Grisham didn't go in for this kind of careful, thoughtful character development in his early novels, because (I think) he wasn't capable of it. Sorry if that seems blunt, but there you go.

The early novels, like The Firm or The Client or The Pelican Brief, consisted of not much more than by-the-numbers characters wandering around in by-the-numbers plots. There were flashes of something more, moments of emotional depth and subtle insight, scenes where characters behaved like people (and not devices of the plot); but there weren't many of them.

Grisham's more recent novels, like A Painted House and The King of Torts, have been more artfully constructed, and The Broker is, far and away, his best novel. It shows that he has matured into a writer of considerable narrative gifts.

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