With a 2.8-million first printing and a John Grisham byline, nothing shy of Armageddon could stop The Partner from becoming a spectacular best-seller. As Darth Vader says, ”It is useless to resist.” And frankly, you shouldn’t even try. Take away the hype and the world-famous name, and this is still one terrific book — smart, fast, stingingly satiric, and almost criminally entertaining.

As the novel opens, a group of bounty hunters has arrived in a sleepy Brazilian town, not far from the Paraguayan border. Their quarry is Patrick Lanigan, a 40ish American lawyer who faked his own death in a fiery Bronco crash four years earlier, then absconded from Mississippi with $90 million.

Lanigan is snatched and tortured but refuses to divulge where he’s parked the stolen money. A man of ”meticulous planning,” he’s made prior arrangements to have the loot divvied up and wired around the world practically the moment he’s captured. The locations of the new bank accounts are known only to Eva Miranda, Lanigan’s Brazilian attorney and lover, who disappears from her law office after alerting the FBI that Lanigan is in the custody of ruthless bounty hunters.

Eventually, Lanigan is returned to the United States, creating more legal work on the Gulf Coast ”than any single event in recent history.” In less than 24 hours, he is sued for restitution as well as for divorce, and indicted for grand larceny and capital murder. (The incinerated body in the Bronco has never been identified, although the police suspect that the victim may have been a mildly retarded 17-year-old runaway, missing since the day of Lanigan’s alleged demise.)

While Grisham’s setup is irresistible, the way that he ravels out the plot is masterful. Not only that — and here’s the real shock — it’s downright subversive. Or to state it plainer, he puts the reader in the morally sticky position of rooting for an absolute stinker. Lanigan is smooth, amiable, and brilliant, and he can make a good case, or at least a good excuse, for himself. Sure, he abandoned his wife and child — but hey, his wife was a ”legendary party girl” and the child wasn’t biologically his. And yes, he swindled his legal partners and grabbed all those millions, but his partners were crooks, and the money was dirty — won from the U.S. government in a bogus lawsuit. As he tells a friendly judge, ”At some point in life, everybody thinks about walking away. Life’s always better on the beach or in the mountains.” Can’t argue with that.

Lanigan is so convincing and so likable, so calculating and so clearly superior to his adversaries that you can’t help but succumb to his machinations. Setting up an impromptu law office in his well-guarded hospital room, he pulls off one stunning legal trick after another, outfoxing the feds and the local police at every turn, using blackmail and loopholes to slither out of the monumental jam that he’s in. His ingenuity is enough to make you giddy. Go, Patrick, go! You want him — so badly! — to get away with everything, to thumb his nose at the world, then fly back to Brazil and into the arms of his beautiful girlfriend.

Then it dawns on you. The man you’re cheering on is an arrogant, rich celebrity criminal who’s trashing the entire legal system for his own selfish gain. And suddenly — click! — the brilliance of Grisham’s legal fable, a cautionary tale for our cynical times if ever there was one, hits home, and hits hard.

The Partner
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