Author: John Grisham
Price: $17.00 (Paperback)
Ordinarily, I would not review a novel by John Grisham. He is a known quantity, a master of his craft, and every book is a best-seller.
But this novel intrigued me with its connection to the literary world, and there is even a tenuous Alabama connection.
The opening action of “Camino Island” is an enthralling account of the theft of the original, handwritten manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s five novels from the thoroughly secure “Rare Books and Special Collections” vault of the Firestone Library at Princeton, where Fitzgerald had been a student.
We are told those five boxes of old paper are worth 25 million dollars and indeed they probably are.
The novel can be broken into four main sections. The first section is a manual on how to rob a library archive, or a great many other places, for that matter.
The thieves create fake scholar and student ID’s, hack the library and campus security systems, wear disguises, detonate pre-set explosives and smoke bombs elsewhere on campus, and call in fake “active shooter” alerts, including calls for help for the wounded.
In all this sadly familiar and perfectly believable chaos, the thieves have time to penetrate computerized locks, even burn through thick steel vault doors with an acetylene torch, snatch the manuscripts and make their getaway.
The second section of the book illustrates how sophisticated the FBI and other agencies have become and what fantastic equipment they have at their disposal. Using DNA search engines, ultra-sophisticated facial recognition software, databases for CCTV around Princeton, military records and information stored from previous arrests, they know who did it in a very short time.
Americans be warned. The government knows, or can know, an awful lot about you in a few minutes.
Potential thieves be warned: only a criminal virgin stands a chance.
In crimes like this one, an art heist, the merchandise, a painting or less often a sculpture, is difficult to fence. If you buy a stolen Van Gogh, you can never show it to anyone, just admire it in your own home, alone.
So, the usual motive is ransom; the thieves return the art work to the owner, quietly, and law enforcement is not involved. But that original plan to sell the manuscripts back quickly is foiled, the thieves panic and turn on one another viciously, and the manuscripts get sold out into the dark market.
Since the manuscripts were insured, and Princeton University’s endowment fund in any case is, Grisham tells us, 25 billion dollars, money is not the main issue.
The insurance company, however, would like NOT to pay and they put their own team to work to recover the manuscripts.
In section three, we meet Mercer Mann, an unemployed creative writing teacher and blocked novelist.
It is impossible to be sure, but I think Grisham does not mean for us to like her very much.
She is a little whiney, complains about her student loans, and feels she cannot teach and write at the same time, which is what thousands of American writers are doing every day. In conversation, Mercer is asked does she read Faulkner, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald. She replies, “Only if I have to. I try to avoid old dead white men.” One hears this all too often, and it useful to remember that the category of “old dead white men,” by which here we mean writers, includes Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, Melville and a great many others and will one day include John Grisham, so this cannot be meant as endearing.
Mercer is recruited to go under cover, so to speak, following the insurance people’s leads. Not surprisingly, some evidence points to rare book dealers and independent bookstores, and in section four we learn a lot of useful information on which books—signed old first editions in perfect condition– are valuable and how to run a successful bookstore, a real feat in these times.
The bookstore in question is Bay Books on Camino Island, not too far from Jacksonville, Florida, owned by the charming ladies’ man Bruce Cable, who describes himself thusly: “‘I have a fatal attraction for women. When I see a pretty one, I have one thought. It’s been that way since college. When I got to Auburn and was suddenly surrounded by thousands of cute girls, I went wild.’”
This is not a typical Grisham novel. Bibliophiles will enjoy “Camino Island,” whereas thriller devotees may find it fragmented and overly gentle. Grisham does tie all the sections together at the end, however arbitrarily.
Errors of fact do not usually enter into discussions of “thrillers,” but I could not help but be startled by the narrator’s descriptions, on page two, of Fitzgerald’s career. We are told: “His classic, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ was published in 1925 but did not become popular until after his death.” This is loosely true; it was not his biggest hit. “He struggled financially throughout his career,” however, is even less accurate. His first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” was a best-seller, 41,000 copies in the first year, and he was the best-paid short story writer in the country. In 1937 Fitzgerald had an income of $30,000, a huge sum for those times. It is true he and Zelda squandered his enormous income, but it was not until his later years, up into the 1930s when Zelda was hospitalized with mental illness, that he had serious financial problems. Fitzgerald was never a poet in an unheated garret. On the contrary, it was mainly a life of extravagance: rented villas, hotel suites and champagne.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.