Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ray's Reviews: The Racketeer by John Grisham & The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

Two recent, intriguing crime novels by well-known authors have various degrees of success. Both have justice-related themes, providing hours of captivating reading entertainment.

     "The Racketeer" by John Grisham (Doubleday, $28.95) isn't his usual legal thriller, although there are an assortment of legalities involved.

     It focuses on the plight of Malcolm Bannister, a Black attorney who's serving 10 years in prison for his involvement in a money-laundering scheme.

     He's spent some of his time as a jailhouse lawyer, learning a lot about his fellow prisoners. When a Federal Judge and his young secretary are discovered murdered, with an empty safe nearby, Bannister feels he knows who's responsible.

     After the extensive investigation by local police and the FBI turns up no evidence, Bannister offers them useful information - for a price. He can break the case wide open, but wants his freedom.

     Grisham's compelling tale is told from alternating viewpoints, beginning with Bannister's narrative and then switching to a third person, more objective view.

     The reader doesn't really know immediately where the novel is going and is given few clues along the way. The author offers numerous surprises, racial insights and a bit of violence, but the final outcome is not completely unpredictable.

     Grisham, in his brief afterward, notes "Almost nothing in the previous 340-odd pages is based on reality" - and he's 100% right. Although confusing at times, his latest novel is still classic Grisham, ready-made for the movies.

     "The Cocktail Waitress" by James M. Cain (Hard Case Crime, $23.99) is a top-notch crime novel by the creator of "Mildred Pierce" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice".

     Set in the early 1960's, it focuses on pretty Joan Medford, whose husband died under suspicious circumstances.

     With a 3-year-old son and desperate for money, she takes a job as a cocktail waitress and soon gets involved with a wealthy widower and a handsome schemer.

     She must make important, life-changing decisions, which inevitably lead to deadly, conflicting results and an ironic conclusion.

     This is the lost final novel by Cain, the noir fiction specialist, who died in 1977.

     In the afterward, by Edgar-Award winning author and Hard Crime Press founder Charles Ardai, it is revealed how the manuscript was discovered and how it was made available for publication.

Ray Walsh, owner of East Lansing's Curious Book Shop, has reviewed crime novels and noir thrillers regularly since 1987.

This review was originally published by the Lansing State Journal on Sunday, November 18, 2012.

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