Book Review: “Camino Island,” By John Grisham

In Camino Island, John Grisham’s thirtieth novel and thirty-second book (thirty-eighth if you count children’s books), two different stories are dovetailed together.  One is the tale of a soulful young writer who returns to the beach town she knew as a girl to come to terms with her grandmother’s death and to look for something resembling love.  The other is a hard-edged thriller, a caper piece, about high-tech burglars who steal a priceless manuscript collection, fall out among themselves, lose hold of their prize, and leave a trail of bodies as they race the FBI to recover it.

And inside Camino Island there is a third book, calmer and quieter and written with the authority of familiarity.  Honoré de Balzac once broke the headlong pace of one of his own thrillers so that he might take a sidelong, unhurried look at the founding of a hair-oil enterprise, following his characters as they scouted out workshops, found money, and obtained a sufficient supply of bottles.  In the same way, Camino Island follows its characters through two businesses with which John Grisham has a quarter-century of experience, the writer’s craft, and the bookseller’s trade – and it is these sections that are the freshest and most intriguing.

Camino Island opens with a heist; a break-in staged with military precision and black-ops gadgetry at the Firestone Library at Princeton University, home to the original drafts of Scott Fitzgerald’s novels.  The burglars plan to steal and ransom the Fitzgerald manuscripts – but while the burglary succeeds, an overlooked drop of blood thwarts the burglars’ larger plans, and sets law enforcement on their trail.

Mercer Mann, the book’s heroine, now enters the narrative.  Mercer is a young novelist whose first books sold well but whose career has stalled.  Her teaching contract has not been renewed, her student loans are large, and she agrees to an offer made by a nameless “security and investigation” firm: to spend the summer on Camino Island, there to befriend the resort town’s bookstore owner, Bruce Cable.   Cable discounts bestsellers, he offers paperbacks for the beach, he hosts visiting writers, and he traffics in rare books, sometimes of dubious provenance.  His strongrooms are thought to hold the Fitzgerald manuscripts.

Mercer makes her way into Cable’s circle, the local set of writers – personalities whose reputations, talents, and degrees of success vary widely.  Most colorful are Leigh and Myra, partners in writing and in life, who are known for Leigh’s impenetrable literary fiction and Myra’s soft-pornography bodice-rippers.  “Those were the days,” Myra recalls.  “We cranked out a hundred books under a dozen names . . . .   [Then] we got sued twice by this crazy bitch up north who claimed we had stolen her stuff.  Wasn’t true.  Our crap was much better than her crap.”

Myra, all six loud lesbian feet of her, wakes up the book.  Compared to her, Grisham’s crooks and FBI men are square-jawed cartoons.

For nearly all Grisham’s legal thrillers, the epigraph might be Balzac’s most famous adage, behind every great fortune there lies a great crime (either that, or every great fortune begets a great crime).  And Grisham’s work recalls the French master’s respect for ambition and industry.  Bruce Cable starts his career by purloining rare books from his father’s library, but Grisham makes clear that his success as a bookseller is earned fair and square.  A long flashback on the history of Bay Books is a study in crisp narrative and significant detail.

“He pushed the closing time back from seven to nine and put in fifteen hours a day.  He worked the front like a politician, memorizing the names of the regular customers . . . .  He removed shelves of old books mainly classics that were not too popular, and put in a small café.  Closing time went from nine to ten.  He cranked out dozens of handwritten notes to customers, and to writers and booksellers he’d met on his coast-to-coast adventures.  At midnight, he was often at the computer, updating the Bay Books newsletter.  He wrestled with the idea of opening on Sunday . . . .[In] September he said to hell with it and opened at 9:00 a.m. Sunday, with the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune hot off the press, along with fresh chicken biscuits from a café three doors down.”

Readers who read Grisham’s first bestseller, The Firm, will find that Camino Island is cut from the same piece of cloth.  The story unspools with a jump.  The viewpoint zigzags from character to character, opening space for plot twists and surprise endings.  Technology works flawlessly, multimillion-dollar fund transfers go through immediately, and the FBI will unblinkingly dispatch dozens of agents to investigate a crime against literature.  Grisham’s fiction shares these qualities with other thrillers.  But what readers will recall from Camino Island are the scenes in which – as every writer and writing instructor teaches – Grisham writes about what he knows. 


Allen Boyer, Book Editor for HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford. He lives and writes on Staten Island, which is not a resort town. His book “Rocky Boyer’s War,” a WWII history drawing on his father’s diary, was published last month by the Naval Institute Press.

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