The Brethren

by John Grisham

Published by Doubleday

366 pages, 2000

Buy it online






Ambivalent Thriller

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


The Brethren is noticeably lacking in the courtroom battles and law procedures that have marked so many of John Grisham's novels. While there are a few lawyers in The Brethren -- after all, it would hardly be Grisham if there weren't a few crawling around -- the action here takes place on an entirely different front.

The brethren in question are a trio of disenfranchised judges languishing in a low security federal prison in Florida. The three are intelligent men with too much time on their hands and not much to lose. With the help of an unsuccessful local lawyer outside of the prison system who isn't averse to making some easy money, they hatch a scheme. They advertise in a gay magazine and lure wealthy older men -- preferably married and with a lot to lose -- to start a written conversation with a young gay who, of course, doesn't exist. The scam works brilliantly and pretty soon the money is pouring in. It looks like it will continue to pour, too. Until the Brethren snare the wrong man. A powerful politician with the kind of connections that can make people just disappear.

While Grisham's writing lacks the dazzle of fellow thriller writer Scott Turow or the sharp wit of Nelson DeMille, Grisham is a workman of the highest order. He knows how to put the pieces together and how to spin his tale and, for the most part, The Brethren fairly spins along on its own Grisham-power. However, there are elements of The Brethren that don't really go anywhere -- plot lines that seem to fizzle and characters carefully built and then forgotten -- that make the reader wonder if maybe this time Grisham wasn't cranking a bit too fast.

For instance, the first dupe to pay up is a banker in Iowa named Quince Garbe whom the Brethren first hit for $100,000. We meet him at the very beginning of Chapter Six when he's just received the note telling him that the young man he's been considering outing himself with is actually an extortionist:

For Quince Garbe, February 3 would be the worst day of his life. It was almost the last, and it would've been had his doctor been in town. He couldn't get a prescription for sleeping pills, and he didn't have the courage to use a gun on himself.

Which, of course, is foreshadowing, since we've been told it's almost his last day. Except it isn't. Garbe never actually dies. Doesn't even come close. In fact, his dilemma ends up being solved quite neatly.

Did Grisham perhaps think he was going to kill the Garbe character and then change his mind and forget he'd included the foreshadow? But shouldn't the editors and other early readers of the book have caught this? This sort of error greatly detracts from the narrative as we're left with a sort of internal breath-holding that we never get to expel. The Brethren has altogether too many build ups like this one for explosions that never happen.

The Brethren also lacks any clear-cut good guys or bad guys. The book features some sorta corrupt politicians, some kinda questionable federal agents and -- of course -- the trio of judges who, while their crimes weren't heinous, are not exactly squeaky-clean, either. No one in The Brethren is especially nasty and no one is especially nice. The result is that there's no single character you really want to root for. And, likewise, no character nasty enough to wish for just desserts. And, when all is said and done, ambivalence is not a healthy emotion when it comes to fiction.

All of that said, if you're a huge Grisham fan or hate to miss a thriller, The Brethren probably belongs on your list. Everyone else might want to wait for the movie. | March 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.