11/20/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

The Racketeer Is a Step Back for Grisham

With his last two novels, Calico Joe and The Litigators, John Grisham brought alienated readers back to his list of admirers. Those books recaptured the humor and heart he had evidenced in his earlier works and even improved upon them. You had characters you could identify with, understand, forgive and even admire. Plus The Litigators showed a humorous side of Grisham's writing that had only been hinted at in the past. Now comes his latest novel The Racketeer and it is a book full of lackluster characters, no humor, and a plot that is too twisty to be fun.

The book focuses on Malcolm Bannister, an attorney convicted of money laundering who is serving ten years in prison. Malcolm of course says he wasn't guilty but no one believes him, not even his wife who divorces him and begins a new life with Malcolm's son and a new husband. He is a man who has lost it all and wants to get some of it back.

What Malcolm hasn't lost is his intelligence and he comes up with a way to make a deal with the Feds to get out of prison and start a new life in the Witness Protection Program. He does this by offering the solution to a crime they have been investigating but haven't solved. It concerns the murder of an elderly judge and a young woman he was seeing. Malcolm says he knows who did it and can basically prove it.

That is the premise of the story and it is an interesting one in theory. But in execution it is not. The main fault lies with Malcolm. He is one of Grisham's least charismatic "heroes." He is smart and comes up with plan after plan but as written the reader doesn't care all that much. We never get inside Malcolm's heart though we do get inside his head. To be a good Grisham novel we need to do both.

Then there are the twists and turns of the plot. Just when you think you have figured out one element of the story another confusing element arises. And then another, and then another. Eventually you lose interest. Is this clever, inventive writing? Of course it is. But is it overdone? Absolutely.

John Grisham is a good writer and in some instances he is a great writer, but with The Racketeer he only uses a small amount of the talent he has shown in the past. The Racketeer will probably sell based on Grisham's name alone but it is definitely not one of his best books.

The Racketeer is published by Doubleday. It contains 340 pages and sells for $28.95.