”I know very little about spies, electronic surveillance, satellite phones, smart-phones, bugs, wires, mikes, and the people who use them,” writes John Grisham in the Author’s Note of his first international espionage thriller, The Broker, a departure that unfortunately bears his disclaimer out. Zippy but uneventful, the book tastes like something Robert Ludlum left sitting on his stove when he died.
The broker of the title, Joel Backman, is technically a lawyer — and like many a Grisham motion filer, he’s running for his life — but he doesn’t do any lawyering in the book. He doesn’t do much of anything in the book, actually. For the first couple pages, he’s sitting in jail, guilty — the dirty traitor! — of peddling a software program to China, Russia, the Israelis, and the Saudis that jams a mysterious satellite system in space. But who controls the satellite system? That’s what the book’s crippled, ogreish CIA director, Teddy Maynard (who also controlled the puppet strings in Grisham’s 2000 novel The Brethren), wants to know, and so he arranges a presidential pardon for Backman and then ships him to Italy, where he’s unwitting bait. Find out which country’s assassins will kill Backman, the CIA figures, and you learn who controls the satellites. Backman must be whacked.
So, in no time, Backman should be getting car-chased by Israeli death squads, or outrunning Russian sniper fire on the Via Ugo Bassi, or karate-chopping deadly ninjas in his appartamento. It’s a spy thriller, after all. But Maynard, for some strange reason, doesn’t give the order to tell the bad guys where Backman is hiding till the 207th page of a 357-page book. He wants Backman to get settled into Italian living first. What a dillydallying bureaucrat.
And what a chore for the reader. Instead of hand-to-hand fisticuffs, we get man-to-man language lessons. The Broker spends an inordinate amount of time hanging out with Backman as he gets schooled in Italian by a kid named Ermanno and in local customs by a CIA lackey named Luigi. What do we learn? Well, when in Italy, never order a cappuccino after 10:30 a.m. If you start with the tortellini, finish with the veal filet and truffles. Bagno is Italian for bathroom, cervello for brain, and La mia amica si é fatta male for ”My lady friend is hurt.” Bologna — where Backman, a.k.a. ”Marco,” wanders the streets plotting his escape to spy-thriller capital Zurich (and dodging not a single bullet) — is the home base of Italy’s political left and boasts the world’s longest porticoed sidewalk!
This is about as revealing as The Broker gets, because — did we mention? — Backman doesn’t even know how to send an e-mail. Grisham’s novels are never boring, but this one is padded and unconvincing. It feels like Grisham had a nice trip to Bologna and struggled to concoct a book around it. In his Author’s Note, he calls the city ”delightful” and says he sampled all the best restaurants with a buddy of his. ”In the course of our tedious work,” he admits, ”I put on ten pounds.” He certainly didn’t work them off sweating over this half-baked dish.