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The Brethren by John Grisham

There are several common themes in each John Grisham novel, all of them highly entertaining. One such theme is the underlying secret that forms a presence as powerful as any character in the book.

This secret is normally hidden deep underneath a distant, dark, and dirty rock. And it is only a matter of time before someone turns over just the right rock.

In The Brethren, three convicts stumble upon a secret rooted in Washington, D.C. In doing so, the suspense builds as to whether this bit of knowledge will work to their advantage or downfall.

The next masterful element is the characters. At the center of the story are the three lamentable convicts. They are former judges serving time in a Florida minimum security prison. As part of their new fate, they join in a blackmail scam with the help of their dimwitted lawyer on the outside.

As the three judges reel in victims into their scheme, a rising Washington congressman falls into the trap. Soon the CIA steps in believing that national security is at stake. Then it is the three "Brethren" against the Director of the CIA - and the full weight of a covert operation. 

Two other characters were especially entertaining, and Grisham is an expert at their portrayal.  They are the two CIA operatives who spearhead the investigation into who exactly are the Brethren.  Wes and Chap are extraordinary, yet two dimensional, characters - federal agents with a "we'll ask the questions around here" attitude.  Jumping in near the middle of the book, they wade through the poor saps caught in the Brethren's scheme.  

The characters of Wes and Chap are reminiscent of Ed Harris' bald FBI agent in the movie The Firm - confident, in charge of the situation, and comically overbearing.  I get the impression that Grisham enjoyed creating these two characters as much as I enjoyed reading about them.

There is a great deal of humor generated not only by many of the characters but also by the suspense brewing around the three convicts.  Part of the fun is cheering for the elderly, cantankerous Brethren who quickly assume the role of underdogs and try to get the upper hand against their predators from the CIA.  Meanwhile, the fun of the book is tempered by life-and-death danger.  The Brethren are up against powerful men who are no strangers to death, even assassination.

Finally there is the all-important secret.  Hiding it consumes the Director of the CIA.  Yet Grisham's treatment of it is another admirable joy of this book.  He never passes judgment on its taboo.  Instead he plays on our biases to believe that, yes, revealing it would ruin lives.

The Brethren is the funniest Grisham novel I have read.  It led me to buy several other of his novels and anticipate whatever he writes next.  I highly recommend this page turner for fun summer reading or humorous winter diversion.


Paperback retail price is $7.99.

ISBN 0-440-23667-3.


Posted Saturday December 1, 2001.