John Grisham is one of the world’s best known authors of legal thrillers, mainly due to his books but also due to a string of extremely successful movie adaptations of those books in the 1990s. Grisham has been producing books since then the early 90s at the rate of about one per year. But the book he is probably best known for is 1991’s The Firm, the story of a precocious Harvard law graduate who finds himself caught between the Chicago Mafia and the FBI when he goes to work for a law firm in Memphis. The film version of Mitch McDeere was played by Tom Cruise and it is Cruise’s reprisal of the role of Pete Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick that was apparently one of the prompts that encouraged John Grisham to pen a sequel to The Firm called The Exchange. Given its content, however, a less generous and more cynical view of The Exchange was that Grisham had an idea for a not particularly legal (or thrilling) thriller and decided that the best way to sell it was to anchor it with a character that readers already knew.
Fifteen after the events of The Firm and Mitch McDeere is riding high as a partner in a global law firm and is back in New York with his wife and has twin eight-year-old boys. When readers last saw Mitch he was sailing off to the Cayman islands with a bunch of stolen mafia money and while his return to the law and to the US is explained (unconvincingly), the fact that he has suffered no consequences for his actions is never really explained. Early in the book McDeere goes back to Memphis for a case and catches up with one of his old colleagues who did jail time for the events in The Firm. His wife is not happy about him going to Memphis, as if there is some solid barrier between Memphis and New York that might somehow be breached and consequences will follow (they don’t, and never mind that the mafia in The Firm was based in Chicago). And even Grisham cannot explain, when asked, why the mafia have decided to let the theft of ten million dollars go or why McDeere’s former colleagues who have all done jail time are just prepared to forgive because they accept that they did the wrong thing. And while there is tension built later in the book and both McDeere and his wife and his new firm seem to be targets, none of those events tie back to the earlier book. All which is to say, up front, that if readers are looking for the elements that they enjoyed about The Firm in its sequel they are unlikely to find them.
While The Exchange is not The Firm part 2, it is a thriller involving terrorists, kidnapping and ransom. Set in 2005, the legal aspect of the plot revolves around McDeere representing a Turkish construction company that has built a white elephant bridge in the middle of Libya. The Libyan government is refusing to pay for the bridge and McDeere is brought in to run the litigation. On a visit to Libya, McDeere’s young associate is kidnapped by a local anti-Ghaddaffi warlord. The rest of the book is McDeere running the operation to raise the $100 Million ransom that is demanded from the firm. It involves a terrorist group that is way more sophisticated and well resourced than any local Libyan resistance group has any right to be. Along the way there are smatterings of the international arbitration over the bridge. There is a modicum of tension but very few thrills, no real twists and no reason for the main character of this book to be Mitch McDeere from The Firm, who seems to do little more than fly around the world and beg people for money.
As with many recent John Grisham books, though, the biggest problem with The Exchange is that it is just not that engaging as it is practically all exposition. Grisham excels at telling rather than showing so that the whole book feels like a recitation of events rather than an engaging story that readers might want to immerse themselves in. On top of that, the narrative itself often boils down to a bunch of people having meetings. That and lengthy descriptions of food, restaurants, clothes, international travel often on private jets and just generally the lives of the wealthy and entitled (for example, when McDeere has to hide his children they have to slum it in an 18 room house in Maine complete with servants and a boat). And the biggest tension in the novel seems to be whether the partners in McDeere’s giant law firm will give up their personal money and bankrupt their firm to pay terrorists (something most governments would not do).
Readers are likely to gravitate to The Exchange because it is being sold as the sequel to The Firm. In so far as it is a story with the same main character (and his partner) in the middle of it, I guess that box is ticked. But in every other respect, The Exchange is its own book and nothing about Mitch McDeere from that earlier book (with the exception that he has trained in the law and stole some money so is living very nicely thank you very much) is particularly relevant. And that book is not a particularly interesting or engaging one. It builds to a resolution that is likely to leave readers flat and bewildered and wondering if this might just be part one and that a sequel is coming to explain all of the many plot holes and unresolved mysteries. But even if such a book was coming (and there is no indication that it is), it is unlikely to be worth the effort.