You Can't Make it All Up

I read a John Grisham book over the weekend called The Broker. Most of the time Mr. Grisham writes these tightly plotted legal thrillers filled with interesting characters and lots of danger. This one is different; it's more of a political thriller that relies heavily on technology to get the protagonist, Joel Backman, in trouble and to help him try to escape from that trouble. The plot seemed a little odd and flimsy to me and I was put off by stuff like calling China "Red China" (The book was written in 2005, a good twenty years since I heard anyone use that expression seriously) but Mr. Grisham can be a good read so I plowed through the book, only to be jarred by the author's notes at the end; notes that pretty much ruined the book for me and made me wonder why in the heck the author wrote it.

The Broker is about a Washington power broker, Joel Backman, who got into hot water over spy satellite technology and went to jail for a long, long time. Several governments want to get their mitts on the technology while the United States wants to know who invented it, so the outgoing president pardons him, releasing him from solitary confinement fourteen years early. The CIA stashes him away in a city in Italy but not to protect him, instead to see who kills him. Then they'll have an idea who owns the missing secrets. (I'm not quite sure how this was supposed to work since several entities want to kill him just because he didn't sell the stuff to them.) Backman is immersed in the Italian culture and forced to spend hours each day learning the language so he'll fit in. He gradually comes to love the area and to develop feelings for his tutor, an unhappy married woman. Meanwhile spies from many different countries are closing in and his danger grows every day.

In order for a story to really work you have to be able to believe that the story world also works. For instance in the Harry Potter novels you know that kids will fly around on broomsticks but if Tom Clancy had his Jack Ryan character get from place to place via broom you'd be seriously confused and annoyed. It just doesn't work. When we pick up a book by Robin Cook we trust that the medical details are going to be accurate and when we start a novel by John Grisham we expect that the courtroom scenes are going have the ring of truth, despite the fact that the book itself is fiction. When I started The Broker I expected that Mr. Grisham had done his homework and learned whatever it was he needed to know to write his political/spy thriller, but I was sadly mistaken. In his author's note he says, "I know very little about spies, electronic surveillance, satellite phones, smartphones, bugs, wires, mikes and the people who use them. If something in this novel approaches accuracy, it's probably a mistake."

Why in the world would you write a book when you know nothing about the subject? He goes on to talk about how much he loves Bologna, the Italian city where his protagonist is taken. In fact the most accurate parts of the book are the touristy sorts of descriptions of architecture, style and food. I think he wanted to write a book about this city but couldn't come up with a reasonable plot that would involve plunking an American down in a foreign country, forcing him to learn the language and fit in well enough to not be noticed by those who want to kill him, so Mr. Grisham invented this spy world instead of learning about how this stuff really works. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for inventing entire worlds to support your story but if that story seems to be taking place in a real world setting it's jarring to find out that the only truth in it is accidental.

Just for fun I spent a few minutes and came up with some plots that Mr. Grisham could have used that would have used required very little research and incorporated the romance and factoids about Bologna that permeate The Broker in a satisfying and interesting way. A man inherits a substantial sum with the provision that he must immediately leave for Italy with only the clothes on his back and he must live there as a native for a period of one year. He must spend four hours a day learning Italian and he must learn about the culture and history of the city. The man takes the challenge and goes but he's very resentful at first and fighting the will in court, only gradually coming to fall in love with his new home and giving up the battle. Or someone (could be a man or a woman) cheats their partner out of a large sum of money and flees the country. Or something terrible happens to them (a la Danielle Steel) and they can't bear their surroundings any longer and go to a completely new place where nothing, not even the language, will remind them of their old life. Or they could be abducted by aliens, have their memories sucked out and are returned to Earth, but to the wrong country. That one could be the most fun and really, how would you go about researching aliens anyway? You could totally make up anything you like. Or there's the wacky bet scenario, which may or may include a night of drunkenness resulting in a sober sense of "What have I done?" Coming up with new plots could be the next party game, you never know. Look for the Grisham Plot Generator coming to quality stores near you.

Luckily for me I followed The Broker up with a really riveting thriller about some escaped convicts who have taken a school bus full of deaf schoolgirls hostage. We'll talk about that next week.

Guest One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is a bit of a change of pace. Art student Kit Funtastik reviews his school cafeteria, so if you're there for an art exhibit you'll be forewarned. Kit says, "Pratt's cafeteria is extremely overpriced and lacking in potato products at crucial moments, though their hot chocolate is decent in all regards." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at