Malcolm Bannister, the protagonist in “The Racketeer,” is a multifaceted character. The reader will have to decide how likeable he is. He is a disbarred lawyer, 43 years old, and is in the middle of a 10-year sentence in a minimum-security prison. He’s there because he had been caught in a real estate game and was convicted under the RICO Act for helping a client conceal money to avoid paying taxes on it. Bannister is divorced and has a 6-year-old son whom he never sees.
In prison, Bannister helps fellow prisoners with some of their legal issues. He is biding his time in prison until learning that federal Judge Raymond Fawcett and his girlfriend/secretary are found murdered in the judge’s cabin in the woods. The cabin’s safe was emptied. The FBI is on the case, but one after another, their leads don’t pan out. Bannister talks to the warden and tells him that he knows without a doubt who killed the judge; in fact Bannister knew the killer. Bannister wants to cut a deal with the FBI to get out of prison.
FBI agents talk to him and are intrigued, but not ready to make a deal. They try to figure out who Bannister could have met who would have wanted to kill the judge. But frustrated and under tremendous pressure to solve the murder of a federal judge, they go back to Bannister. If Bannister’s information results in the grand jury indictment, he’ll get the $150,000 reward that’s been offered and walk out of prison a free man.
He’ll also end up in the Witness Protection Program, have cosmetic surgery to change his appearance and be given a new job. The FBI agrees and arrests Bannister’s suspect, a man named Quinn Rucker. Bannister had met Rucker in prison. Rucker had escaped a few months earlier by simply walking off the grounds and disappearing. Rucker’s family is heavily involved in the drug business and has contacts up and down the East Coast.
Rucker has a nephew who was picked up while running drugs across state lines. He was arrested after his car was searched illegally and a large quantity of drugs found. Rucker had paid Judge Fawcett half a million dollars to dismiss the case because of the illegal search. But Fawcett allowed the evidence from the search in and Rucker’s nephew got an 18-year sentence. Rucker told Bannister that he was going to kill the judge for taking his money and sending his nephew away.
The FBI find Rucker. They interrogate him, he confesses and the grand jury indicts him. Meanwhile, Bannister goes into witness protection, gets a new look and new name - Max Reed Baldwin - and gets the reward money.
The story could end here, but it doesn’t. Bannister subsequently drops out of witness protection but promises to testify. Then, under his new name, Bannister starts running a scam on Nathan Cooley, pretending to make a movie about Cooley’s brother. This sequence can leave the reader wondering what is going on, but all is revealed in due time. The ending is a surprise and will affect how the reader looks at Bannister-turned-Baldwin.
Grisham’s plot in “The Racketeer” meanders more than most of his story lines, which are more tightly drawn. It’s an interesting read, but not his best novel.
Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.