By John Grisham
290 pages, $28.95
By Scott Turow
Grand Central Publishing
483 pages, $28
Pity the poor U.S. courthouse. John Grisham and Scott Turow just don't want to go there anymore.
Instead, they've opted for a literary change of venue.
Grisham, in his new book, "Camino Island," has moved to a small Florida resort community and into the worlds populated by original-manuscript thieves, frustrated novelists, top-selling authors and a small-bookstore owner.
Turow is even more ambitious in "Testimony," with his main character, a former U.S. attorney, leaving the country to work for the International Criminal Court, heading an investigation into the massacre that wiped out a refugee camp of 400 Roma people in Bosnia.
Nary a page in either book is devoted to Turow's and Grisham's former safe house, the U.S. courthouse.
Let's cut to the chase (which also is absent here): Which of these books you'll prefer depends on whether you're a Grisham or Turow fan. There's one obvious contrast: Grisham has written the breezier novel, just in time for summer; almost 200 pages longer, the Turow book is more involved, more challenging.
This reviewer has always preferred Grisham. Even in his earlier more plot- and action-driven novels, there's always something comforting about the flow, the pace, the clarity of a Grisham novel that make it distinctive.
But both of these books should satisfy any reader who loves this genre, even if it's been tweaked a bit.
"Camino Island" begins with the exquisitely orchestrated theft of "The Great Gatsby" and four other original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from a Princeton University library. These thugs (including Ahmed from Buffalo) committed the perfect crime; well, not quite.
As the manuscripts, worth some $25 million, work their way through the grimy black market, we meet Florida bookstore owner Bruce Cable. A colorful character, he sports an extensive rare-book collection, seersucker suits, loud bow ties and booze-filled dinner parties for writers.
He's also known to deal in a few hot literary treasures.
Entering Cable's world is our main character, Mercer Mann, a lonely soul toting around an unfinished novel and heavy student debts. Grisham's been criticized over the years for his often-too-pure main characters doing battle with the forces of corruption and evil. But Mann becomes a snitch to help pay off her loans, and she doesn't always occupy the highest moral ground. Meanwhile, Cable is a multi-layered character, an affable, brutally honest and sweet man despite all his personal and professional shenanigans.
Grisham enjoys his foray into the world of authors. Cable draws an eclectic crowd of writers to frequent dinner parties. The group includes a lesbian couple who made gobs of money churning out trashy novels; divorced, hard-drinking beach bums; and authors chasing either greater royalties or critical acclaim. The dinner-party rules were simple, as one hostess noted. "No talking about your own books, and no politics. There are some Republicans here."
At one point, Mann asks Cable why writers gravitate to such self-destructive behavior, especially the drinking and bad habits. "It's because the writing life is so undisciplined. There's no boss, no supervisor, no time clock to punch or hours to keep. Write in the morning, write at night. Drink when you want to."
Grisham, of course, ties it all together, with plenty of moral hee-hawing and a pretty satisfactory conclusion. He's always worth the time investment.
Turow has crafted a more intricate story.
His main character, Bill ten Boom, "Boom," is the pure, unadulterated hero, complete with a self-deprecating streak, especially about his failed marriage. At age 50, Boom walks away from his life in America, to take on a daunting task: investigating the nasty avalanche massacre.
He moves to The Hague, armed only with his prosecutorial prowess, to tackle a new culture, all the intrigue of conflict-torn Bosnia and a murky mystery about who killed all these Gypsies. The main suspects: Serb paramilitaries, rogue cops, organized crime, leftover jihadis – maybe even U.S. troops.
The 2004 massacre had one survivor, Ferko Rincic, described as a simple Roma man who claims that armed men forced all the refugee-camp residents into a coal mine before using a hand grenade to set off the deadly avalanche.
All, of course, isn't as it first seems. The black-market dealings and double crosses among the Bosnian Serb mass murderers, Gypsies and the U.S. military yield a somewhat surprising outcome.
Turow also does a little educating in his novel, telling us about the International Criminal Court, which investigates the world's worst atrocities without great prosecutorial powers, and the Roma, one of history's most consistently persecuted minorities. As one character says of her Roma people, "We do not tell the tales of our centuries as slaves, unlike African Americans or Jews. Instead, the Gypsy way is to excel in forgetting."
There's an interesting crew of secondary characters, including a former top U.S. military figure done in by a zipper problem; a black, gender-ambiguous female sergeant major named Attila; and a wily, female Roma activist. It's a clear Turow strength that all these characters occupy seats in the gray area of ethics and morality; it's tough to tell who the good guys are.
While these two books have little in common, their narratives do intersect at one moment. This all goes back to the connection between the authors, considered the top two American spinners of courtroom thrillers. Grisham once lobbied Turow to bring back key character Sandy Stern, and Grisham has admitted that Turow's "Presumed Innocent" in 1987 inspired him to finish "A Time to Kill."
So in Camino Island, Grisham pays tribute to his fellow author. Cable is talking to Mann one day, when a bookstore clerk interrupts: "Sorry to disturb, but Scott Turow is on the phone."
"I'd better take that," Cable says.
Gene Warner is a former veteran Buffalo News reporter.