John Grisham has, as I have written before, the knack for keeping the pages turning. He does this by creating a protagonist whose character gives you reasons to be sympathetic, and then immersing that character into a plot where the other characters are drawn thinly, but to emphasise their potential danger. Camino Island begins as a caper novel, where the target is the F. Scott Fitzgerald collection at Princeton University: the original manuscripts of his five novels. The heist is pulled off, but with the efficiency of Donald Westlake as Richard Stark, if not the gritty prose, things go wrong, and the authorities bust half the crew.

The action then shifts to the world of rare books, and a struggling novelist, Mercer Mann, about to lose her creative writing lecturer’s job at a university and unable to get a second novel underway after the underwhelming attention paid to her first. By coincidence, she happens to have spent her childhood summers on Camino Island where, by coincidence, there is a rare books dealer who is being investigated by a firm employed by the university to get the manuscripts back.

And the surviving thieves, who sold their haul off on the cheap, now want to re-negotiate their deal.

At times you see things building up to a Lionel White or, yes, a Richard Stark denounement, bringing all these folks, and maybe the FBI, together in the sleepy beach town. But Grisham is more interested in the activities of Bruce Cable, the rare books dealer whom Mercer is supposed to be getting close to, and his own world of writers’ tours and an exotic open marriage with his antique dealer wife. Because what this story is, in many ways, is the education of Mercer Mann. Not necessarily to the ways of crime, but to the ways of the wider world. In that Cable and his wife seem less characters than instruments of instruction, and the other eccentric writers in the Camino Island community are there for contrast. There’s a lesson for would-be writers here, about that world, and although Mercer becomes enthralled with her work as an agent, it takes second place to the bigger lesson, which is about isolation and knowledge.

This is an off-beat kind of thriller, with just a touch of Fitzgerald around its edges. Grisham is an acute enough plotter to keep you waiting for something, and whether he manages to deliver enough to justify it depends on a lot on how much you can sympathise with or believe in Mercer Mann.

Camino Island by John Grisham

Hodder & Stoughton, £20, ISBN 9781473663725

This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)

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