Remember Three Days of the Condor, the tasty 1975 paranoia-thon starring Robert Redford as a lowly CIA researcher caught up in a fiendish conspiracy? Well, it’s no accident that Three Days (based on James Grady’s 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor) is the favorite viewing material of ”Khamel,” the legendary hired assassin who kills an enormous number of people in John Grisham’s new thriller, The Pelican Brief. Because Condor and Pelican are, as Grisham acknowledges with a wink every now and then, very much birds of a feather: both feature an innocent hero who Knows Too Much about a dastardly scheme involving People in High Places. Both stories, in fact, hark back to that 1915 granddaddy of conspiracy chase-suspense, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Grisham, of course, has already done wonders with simmering corruption behind a tony facade in The Firm, a blockbuster in both hardcover and paperback. Here the villainy is more up-front and brutal right from the start. On a single night two Supreme Court justices are neatly, permanently removed from the bench. Ancient, ailing superliberal Abe Rosenberg, ”probably the most hated man in America,” dies at home, gunned down along with two attendants. Hours later, Glenn Jensen, young and moderate but a secret homosexual, is strangled at a gay-porn theater. The killer? It could be none other than Khamel, international hit man extraordinaire. But who hired him — and why? Was it ideological terrorism courtesy of a right-wing hate group? Revenge for some past Court decision?

Or maybe someone with an upcoming Supreme Court appeal simply wanted to eliminate the two justices most likely to vote the wrong way. That’s the theory favored by brainy, gorgeous Tulane law student Darby Shaw, who — just for fun, sort of, and to impress her law-prof lover — researches all the big cases headed for Supreme review…and zeroes in on a reclusive multimillionaire with White House connections and controversial plans for Louisiana oil development. But when a copy of Darby’s ”Pelican Brief” gets passed, almost as a joke, to the FBI and the White House, the fun part is definitely over. Within 48 hours, a car bomb intended for Darby fragments her lover and his Porsche. Nobody’s fool, she’s immediately on the run, New Orleans to New York to Washington. Outmaneuvering Khamel’s death squad. Keeping her distance from the iffy FBI. And trusting no one — except, just maybe, Washington Post investigative reporter Gray Grantham.

Original? Not very. The glimmer of a truly fresh idea that made The Firm so enticing is missing — as is the canny insider detail. Indeed, despite the Supreme Court angle and the nicely heinous involvement of a posh D.C. law firm, there’s surprisingly little legal-eagle substance in The Pelican Brief. Even more important, though Darby’s certainly a politically correct ’90s heroine (independent, resourceful, crabby), she remains a lot more generic — and a lot less likable — than the husband and wife who barely survive in The Firm.

Still, Grisham recycles the old formulas with sure pacing and considerable panache. The cynical PR games and damage-control tricks of the Bush-like President and his slimy chief of staff are nastily amusing. When Darby and newsman Grantham team up to find a witness to corroborate her theory, there’s genuine narrative excitement reminiscent of All the President’s Men. So even if this is basically familiar, somewhat predictable stuff — call it The Condor Brief, or maybe Three Days of the Pelican — it flies right by. And will fly right up to the top of the charts. B

The Pelican Brief
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