By Tom De Haven
February 02, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

In John Grisham’s latest, The Brethren, two Western judges and a Southern justice of the peace have formed an unofficial law practice inside the Florida minimum-security federal prison where they’re incarcerated. Known collectively as the Brethren, Joe Spicer (grand theft), Finn Yarber (income-tax evasion), and Hatlee Beech (vehicular homicide while under the influence) spend most of their days advising other inmates for a fee. Once a week they hold court to settle prisoner disputes.

And just recently the three bored and embittered old men have expanded their activities to include a by-mail extortion scheme. After identifying rich, closeted gay men who have responded to a bogus personal ad, the Brethren spring their trap, demanding tens of thousands of dollars from their horrified victims.

One of those victims turns out to be Aaron Lake, a 53-year-old Arizona congressman running for President. After the Brethren penetrate Lake’s pseudonym, they concoct an airtight blackmail plan. If Lake can manage to have their sentences commuted, they won’t demolish his campaign and his life. What the Brethren don’t know is that Aaron Lake’s run for the presidency has been financed from the beginning by the CIA — specifically, by its Machiavellian director, Teddy Maynard, as a part of his scheme to double the U.S. military budget.

The crisis (and most of the black comedy) comes when all the mighty covert power of the CIA is unleashed against the Brethren, in a seesaw of cons, negotiations, betrayal, and murder. It’s also a flat-out guilty pleasure, Grisham’s first real page-turner since 1997’s ”The Partner.” But for all its skillful execution, you do feel a little dirty in the company of such despicable characters.

The Brethren

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