Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Broker by John Grisham


Rating: (Recommended)




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John Grisham strays from his typical legal thriller in his new book, The Broker, and readers benefit from this change in venue. Protagonist Joel Blackman, a D.C. powerbroker serving time in federal prison, finds himself released and transported to Italy to assume a new identity. Joel’s time in Bologna transports readers into a mini-vacation and allows Grisham to relax the pace and enjoy the surroundings. Blackman tries to Figure out what’s happening to him, who are friends and who are enemies. The second half of the book picks up the pace and a chase is on to the end of the book.


Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 9, pp. 86-95:


Midway through the morning session the following day, Marco abruptly changed direction. In the middle of a particularly te­dious piece of dialogue he ditched the Italian and said, “You’re not a student.”

Ermanno looked up from the study guide, paused for a moment, then said, “Non inglese, Marco. Soltanto Italiano.” Only Italian.

“I’m tired of Italian right now, okay? You’re not a student.”

Deceit was difficult for Ermanno, and he paused a bit too long. “I am,” he said, without much conviction.

“No, I don’t think so. You’re obviously not taking classes, other­wise you wouldn’t be able to spend all day teaching me.”

“Maybe I have classes at night. Why does it matter?”

“You’re not taking classes anywhere. There are no books here, no student newspaper, none of the usual crap that students leave lying around everywhere.”

“Perhaps it’s in the other room.”

“Let me see.”

“Why? Why is it important?”

“Because I think you work for the same people Luigi works for.”

“And what if I do?”

“I want to know who they are.”

“Suppose I don’t know? Why should you be concerned? Your task is to learn the language.”

“How long have you lived here, in this apartment?”

“I don’t have to answer your questions.”

“See, I think you got here last week; that this is a safe house of some sort; that you’re not really who you say you are.”

“Then that would make two of us.” Ermanno suddenly stood and walked through the tiny kitchen to the rear of the apartment. He re­turned with some papers, which he slid in front of Marco. It was a reg­istration packet from the University of Bologna, with a mailing label listing the name of Ermanno Rosconi, at the address where they were now sitting.

I resume classes soon,” Ermanno said. “Would you like some more coffee?”

Marco was scanning the forms, comprehending just enough to get the message. “Yes, please,” he said. It was just paperwork—easily faked. But if it was a forgery, it was a very good one. Ermanno disap­peared into the kitchen and began running water.

Marco shoved his chair back and said, “I’m going for a walk around the block. I need to clear my head.”


The routine changed at dinner. Luigi met him in front of a to­bacco shop facing the Piazza dei Signori, and they strolled along a busy alley as shopkeepers were closing up. It was already dark and very cold, and smartly bundled businessmen hurried home, their heads cov­ered with hats and scarves.

Luigi had his gloved hands buried deep in the wool pockets of his knee-length rough fabric duster, one that could’ve been handed down by his grandfather or purchased last week in Milan at some hideously expensive designer shop. Regardless, he wore it stylishly, and once again Marco was envious of the casual elegance of his handler.

Luigi was in no hurry and seemed to enjoy the cold. He offered a few comments in Italian, but Marco refused to play along. “English, Luigi,” he said twice. “I need English.”

“All right. How was your second day of class?”

“Good. Ermanno’s okay. No sense of humor but an adequate teacher.”

“You’re making progress?”

“How could I not make progress?”

Ermanno tells me you have an ear for the language.”

Ermanno is a bad con man and you know it. I’m working hard because a lot depends on it. I’m drilled by him six hours a day, then I spend three hours at night cramming. Progress is inevitable.”

“You work very hard,” Luigi repeated. He suddenly stopped and looked at what appeared to be a small deli. “This, Marco, is dinner.”

Marco stared with disapproval. The storefront was no more than fifteen feet across. Three tables were crammed in the window and the place appeared to be packed. “Are you sure?” Marco asked.

“Yes, it’s very good. Lighter food, sandwiches and stuff. You’re eating by yourself. I’m not going in.”

Marco looked at him and started to protest, then he caught him­self and smiled as if he gladly accepted the challenge.

“The menu is on a chalkboard above the cashier, no English. Or­der first, pay, then pick up your food at the far end of the counter, which is not a bad to place to sit if you can get a stool. Tip is included.”

Marco asked, “What’s the specialty of the house?”

“The ham and artichoke pizza is delicious. So are the panini. I’ll meet you over there, by the fountain, in one hour.”

Marco gritted his teeth and entered the café, very alone. As he waited behind two young ladies he desperately searched the chalk­board for something he could pronounce. Forget taste. What was im­portant was the ordering and paying. Fortunately, the cashier was a middle-aged lady who enjoyed smiling. Marco gave her a friendly “Buona sera,” and before she could shoot something back he ordered a “panino prosciutto e formaggio”—ham and cheese sandwich—and a Coca-Cola.

Good ol’ Coca-Cola. The same in any language.

The register rattled and she offered a blur of words that he did not understand. But he kept smiling and said, “Si,” then handed over a twenty-euro bill, certainly enough to cover things and bring back some change. It worked. With the change was a ticket. “Numero ses­santasette,” she said. Number sixty-seven.

He held the ticket and moved slowly along the counter toward the kitchen. No one gawked at him, no one seemed to notice. Was he actually passing himself off as an Italian, a real local? Or was it so ob­vious that he was an alien that the locals didn’t bother to look? He had quickly developed the habit of evaluating how other men were dressed, and he judged himself to be in the game. As Luigi had told him, the men of northern Italy were much more concerned with style and ap­pearance than Americans. There were more jackets and tailored slacks, more sweaters and ties. Much less denim, and virtually no sweatshirts or other signs of indifference to appearance.

Luigi, or whoever had put together his wardrobe, one no doubt paid for by the American taxpayers, had done a fine job. For a man who’d worn the same prison garb for six years, Marco was quickly ad­justing to things Italian.

He watched the plates of food as they popped up along the counter near the grill. After about ten minutes, a thick sandwich ap­peared. A server grabbed it, snatched off a ticket, and yelled, “Numero sessantasette.” Marco stepped forward without a word and produced his ticket. The soft drink came next. He found a seat at a small corner table and thoroughly enjoyed the solitude of his dinner. The deli was loud and crowded, a neighborhood place where many of the customers knew each other. Their greetings involved hugs and kisses and long hellos, even longer goodbyes. Waiting in line to order caused no prob­lems, though the Italians seemed to struggle with the basic concept of one standing behind the other. Back home there would’ve been sharp words from the customers and perhaps swearing from the cashier.

In a country where a three-hundred-year-old house is considered new, time has a different meaning. Food is to be enjoyed, even in a small deli with few tables. Those seated close to Joel seemed poised to take hours to digest their pizza and sandwiches. There was simply too much talking to do!

The brain-dead pace of prison life had flattened all his edges. He’d kept his sanity by reading eight books a week, but even that ex­ercise had been for escape and not necessarily for learning. Two days of intensive memorizing, conjugating, pronouncing, and listening like he’d never listened before left him mentally exhausted.

So he absorbed the roar of Italian without trying to understand any of it. He enjoyed its rhythm and cadence and laughter. He caught a word every now and then, especially in the greetings and farewells, and considered this to be progress of some sort. Watching the families and friends made him lonely, though he refused to dwell on it. Lone­liness was twenty-three hours a day in a small cell with little mail and nothing but a cheap paperback to keep him company. He’d seen lone­liness; this was a day at the beach.

He tried hard to linger over his ham and cheese, but he could only stretch it so far. He reminded himself to order fries the next time because fries can be toyed with until long after they’re cold, thus ex­tending the meal far beyond what would be considered normal back home. Reluctantly, he surrendered his table. Almost an hour after he entered the café, he left the warmth of it and walked to the fountain where the water had been turned off so it wouldn’t freeze. Luigi strolled up a few minutes later, as if he’d been loitering in the shadows, waiting. He had the nerve to suggest a gelato, an ice cream, but Marco was already shivering. They walked to the hotel and said good night.



Luigi’s field supervisor had diplomatic cover at the U.S. con­sulate in Milan. His name was Whitaker, and Backman was the least of his priorities. Backman was not involved in intelligence, or counter­intelligence, and Whitaker had a full load in those arenas without hav­ing to worry about an ex—Washington power broker who’d been stashed away in Italy. But he dutifully prepared his daily summaries and sent them to Langley. There they were received and reviewed by Julia Javier, the veteran with access to Mr. Maynard himself It was be­cause of Ms. Javier’s watchful eye that Whitaker was so diligent in Mi­lan. Otherwise, the daily summaries may not have been so prompt.

Teddy wanted a briefing.

Ms. Javier was summoned to his office on the seventh floor, to the “Teddy Wing,” as it was known throughout Langley. She entered his “station,” as he preferred it to be called, and once again found him parked at the end of a long wide conference table, sitting high in his jacked-up wheelchair, bundled in blankets from the chest down, wear­ing his standard black suit, peering over stacks of summaries, with Hoby hovering nearby ready to fetch another cup of the wretched green tea that Teddy was convinced was keeping him alive.

He was barely alive, but then Julia Javier had been thinking that for years now.

Since she didn’t drink coffee and wouldn’t touch the tea, nothing was offered. She took her customary seat to his right, sort of the wit­ness chair that all visitors were expected to take—his right ear caught much more than his left—and he managed a very tired “Hello, Julia.”

Hoby, as always, sat across from her and prepared to take notes. Every sound in the “station” was being captured by some of the most sophisticated recording devices modern technology had created, but Hoby nonetheless went through the charade of writing it all down.

“Brief me on Backman,” Teddy said. A verbal report such as this was expected to be concise, to the point, with not a single unnecessary word thrown in.

Julia looked at her notes, cleared her throat, and began speaking for the hidden recorders. “He’s in place in Treviso, a nice little town in northern Italy. Been there for three full days, seems to be making the adjustment quite well. Our agent is in complete contact, and the lan­guage tutor is a local who’s doing a nice job. Backman has no money and no passport, and so far has been quite willing to stick close to the agent. He has not used the phone in his hotel room, nor has he tried to use his cell phone for anything other than to call our agent. He has shown no desire to explore or to wander about. Evidently, the habits learned in prison are hard to break. He’s staying close to his hotel. When he’s not being tutored or eating, he stays in his room and stud­ies Italian.”

“How is his language?”

“Not bad. He’s fifty-two years old, so it won’t be quick.”

“I learned Arabic when I was sixty,” Teddy said proudly, as if sixty was a century ago.

“Yes, I know,” she said. Everyone at Langley knew it. “He is studying extremely hard and making progress, but it’s only been three days. The tutor is impressed.”

“What does he talk about?”

“Not the past, not old friends and old enemies. Nothing that would interest us. He’s closed that off, for now anyway. Idle conversa­tion tends to be about his new home, the culture and language.”

“His mood?”

“He just walked out of prison fourteen years early and he’s hav­ing long meals and good wine. He’s quite happy. Doesn’t appear to be homesick, but of course he doesn’t really have a home. Never talks about his family.”

 “His health?”

“Seems fine. The cough is gone. Appears to be sleeping. No com­plaints.”

“How much does he drink?”

“He’s careful. Enjoys wine at lunch and dinner and a beer in a nearby bar, but nothing excessive.”

“Let’s try and crank up the booze, okay? See if he’ll talk more.”

“That’s our plan.”

“How secure is he?”

“Everything’s bugged—phones, room, language lessons, lunches, dinners. Even his shoes have mikes. Both pairs. His overcoat has a Peak 30 sewn into the lining. We can track him virtually anywhere.”

“So you can’t lose him?”

“He’s a lawyer, not a spy. As of now, he seems very content to en­joy his freedom and do what he’s told.”

“He’s not stupid, though. Remember that, Julia. Backman knows there are some very nasty people who would love to find him.”

“True, but right now he’s like a toddler clinging to his mother.”

“So he feels safe?”

“Under the circumstances, yes.”

“Then let’s give him a scare.”


“Yes.” Teddy rubbed his eyes and took a sip of tea. “What about his son?”

“Level-three surveillance, not much happening in Culpeper, Vir­ginia. If Backman tries to contact anyone, it will be Neal Backman. But we’ll know it in Italy before we know it in Culpeper.”

“His son is the only person he trusts,” Teddy said, stating what Julia had said many times.

“Very true.”

After a long pause he said, “Anything else, Julia?”

“He’s writing a letter to his mother in Oakland.”

Teddy gave a quick smile. “How nice. Do we have it?”

“Yes, our agent took a picture of it yesterday, we just got it. Back-man hides it in between the pages of a local tourism magazine in his hotel room.”

“How long is it?”

“Two good paragraphs. Evidently a work in progress.”

“Read it to me,” Teddy said as he leaned his head back against his wheelchair and closed his eyes.

Julia shuffled papers and pushed up her reading glasses. “No date, handwritten, which is a chore because Backman’s penmanship is lousy. ‘Dear Mother: I’m not sure when or if you will ever receive this letter. I’m not sure if I will ever mail it, which could affect whether or not you get it. At any rate, I’m out of prison and doing better. In my last letter I said things were going well in the flat country of Oklahoma. I had no idea at that time that I would be pardoned by the President. It hap­pened so quickly that I still find it hard to believe.’ Second paragraph. ‘I’m living on the other side of the world, I can’t say where because this would upset some people. I would prefer to be in the United States, but that is not possible. I had no say in the matter. It’s not a great life but it’s certainly better than the one I had a week ago. I was dying in prison, in spite of what I said in my letters. Didn’t want to worry you. Here, I’m free, and that’s the most important thing in the world. I can walk down the street, eat in a café, come and go as I please, do pretty much whatever I want. Freedom, Mother, something I dreamed of for years and thought was impossible.’”

She laid it down and said, “That’s as far as he’s gotten.”

Teddy opened his eyes and said, “You think he’s stupid enough to mail a letter to his mother?”

“No. But he’s been writing her once a week for a long time. It’s a habit, and it’s probably therapeutic. He has to talk to somebody.”

“Are we still watching her mail?”

“Yes, what little she receives.”

“Very well. Scare the hell out of him, then report back.”

“Yes sir.” Julia gathered her papers and left the office. Teddy picked up a summary and adjusted his reading glasses. Hoby went to a small kitchen nearby.

Backman’s mother’s phone had been tapped in the nursing home in Oakland, and so far it had revealed nothing. The day the pardon was announced two very old friends had called with lots of questions and some subdued congratulations, but Mrs. Backman had been so bewil­dered she was eventually sedated and napped for hours. None of her grandchildren—the three produced by Joel and his various wives—had called her in the past six months.

Lydia Backman had survived two strokes and was confined to a wheelchair. When her son was at his pinnacle she lived in relative lux­ury in a spacious condo with a full-time nurse. His conviction had forced her to give up the good life and live in a nursing home with a hundred others.

Surely Backman would not try to contact her.


The Broker is the best Grisham offering in a long time and exceeded my expectations.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2005 issue of Executive Times


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