John Grisham regularly turns out a legal thriller every year around October. This year he has delivered something extra for fans in which lawyers hardly feature. Camino Island is part heist novel, part satire/commentary on the literary world and part thriller. And while it sometimes moves as languidly as a day on a Florida Beach, Grisham is still professional enough to always keep things moving.
Camino Island opens with the daring robbery of five F Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts held securely in the basement of a library at Princeton. Things almost immediately go wrong for the thieves but the manuscripts get away. Jump to a few months later and the insurer has an idea that the manuscripts are being held by Bruce Cable, an antiquarian bookseller who runs a successful bookshop on Florida’s Camino Island. They recruit, Mercer Mann, a struggling young author, to go undercover in the community and gather information on Cable.
From there the book becomes, for the most part, a lengthy commentary on the American literary scene. Camino Island is full of authors of various genres and various stripes. All have something to say about the industry and advice for Mercer who has been unsuccessfully trying to write her second novel. Cable’s bookshop is also a regular stop on book signing tours so visiting authors also get a look in. This part of the book, although a little laboured and not all that thrilling, has plenty to keep avid readers happy.
There is a looming threat in the form of the final violent thief who offloaded the manuscripts for less than their value and has decided he still wants his share. And plenty of focus on Mercer’s moral dilemma as she gets closer to Cable while working for the people who potentially want to bring him down. But, much like his previous book, The Whistler, Grisham spends so much time on the procedure that he fails to build any real tension. And in a similar end game to that book, the main character is spirited away before the action happens and that action itself is fairly pallid.
But action is not really the point of Camino Island. The book is much more about Grisham having fun, and giving a view of his industry through a slightly heightened description of the players – authors, publishers and booksellers – and their mutual dependency. Camino Island is not the great American novel and it spends a lot of time meandering to no real purpose (unless you are interested in how leatherback turtles lay their eggs) but Grisham knows how to tell a story. He keeps enough heat under the plot to keep the pages turning and the whole thing is short enough to not outstay its welcome.