By Tom De Haven
Updated February 04, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

By now, John Grisham’s antipathy for lawyers is well documented; what comes as a surprise in The Brethren is how acidly contemptuous of everyone else he seems to be. Politicians (“an easy bunch to trap”) are cheaply bought, entirely without scruples; judges are corrupt; the intelligence community is downright fascistic. Heck, even long-suffering secretaries and grieving mothers don’t escape Grisham’s disdain. But if you can get past his creepy misanthropy, he’s written a terrifically entertaining story.

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. Maynard has tapped the undistinguished but good-looking congressman to be the agency’s first wholly bought-and-owned chief executive. For his part, Lake feels no pangs of conscience for being illegally underwritten by a secret government. He’s happy just to be in the limelight and coasting his way to the White House. Strangely, for a story that pivots on a major character’s sexual orientation, The Brethren presents Lake asexually, almost as a sexless automaton.

It’s unclear — at least to me — whether Grisham, whose tone is sneering throughout, thinks we should be appalled that the CIA can use its funds to select a presidential candidate, to buy him a slew of doomsday television ads, and purchase endorsements from other politicians. It’s hard to tell if he’s in despair about American politics or just being cynical. And of all the characters populating The Brethren, Teddy Maynard gets the most respect, even awe, from his creator. Here is a man so convinced that he’s struggling “to protect our way of life” that he can blithely allow the U.S. embassy in Cairo to be blown up even though he could have prevented it. A terrorist bombing, he strategizes, will catapult the hawkish Lake in preelection polls and put him out in front of his challengers.

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. Who do you root for when everyone is a crumbbum of one kind or another? The answer, naturally, is nobody, which diminishes a lot of the fun. The Brethren isn’t likely to be one of John Grisham’s most popular novels. Unless, of course, all of his fans have become as socially and politically disillusioned as he has. B+