John Grisham

The Brethren

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The Brethren Summary

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The Brethren is a fictional legal thriller novel written by John Grisham. Published in 2000, it was a  New York Times Bestseller, though critics consider it an average Grisham novel. Grisham is a prolific thriller writer whose novels have been adapted for television and film.

The story revolves around three former judges—Joe Spicer, Finn Yarber, and Hatlee Beech—known collectively as “The Brethren.” All three are incarcerated at a federal minimum-security prison doing time for grand theft, tax evasion, and vehicular homicide while under the influence respectively. They spend their days in the prison advising their fellow inmates. Bored and getting old, The Brethren begin an extortion scheme. Although none of them are gay, they send out fake yet convincing personal advertisements as young, gay men looking for partners. After they establish a relationship with a responder and receive enough personal information, they blackmail him, threatening to reveal his sexual orientation to the world if they don’t receive payment.

The three have a lawyer—Trevor Carson—who privately investigates The Brethren’s unsuspecting victims. He transfers the money to a Bahamian bank account, taking a third for himself. The scheme is so lucrative that he quits practicing law for other clients altogether.

In the meantime, Teddy Maynard, the director of the CIA, maneuvers to control the upcoming presidential election in favor of increased military spending. There is a new despot in Russia causing trouble, and the American military budget is being slashed. It is in America’s interest, according to Maynard, to secure a president who will double the defense budget. Clandestinely, he orchestrates a terror attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo to establish a fearful environment sympathetic to a larger military budget. His preferred candidate is Aaron Lake, a fifty-three-year-old widower from Arizona who is in favor of significantly increasing the defense budget but is otherwise an underachiever in the political world.

However, Lake is the latest victim of The Brethren’s scheme. Rather than money, they threaten to uproot his presidential campaign with scandal unless he commutes their sentences. Maynard was not aware of Lake’s homosexual tendencies but works tirelessly to avoid his candidate—and his plan—from being exposed.

The CIA finds Carson and kills him. Maynard plants a CIA agent at the prison holding The Brethren, who tells them the CIA is aware of their scam. He offers a deal in which the three judges are pardoned by the current president in exchange for not exposing Lake. They accept and move to Europe where they start the extortion scheme anew. Lake is elected president and Maynard finds him a First Lady to eliminate any suspicions about Lake’s sexuality.

While the plot of The Brethren is not based on actual events, the political circumstances mirror President Bill Clinton’s second term in office. The outgoing president is unnamed but is described as a Democrat at the end of his last term in a time of diminishing military expenditure. Concurrently in Russia, Vladimir Putin rose to power as a strongman, promising to return Russia to its glory from Soviet years. While Putin gains power via elections, the Russian in the book stages a military coup. The plot device of a resurgent Russia as a new opponent for a complacent United States is a common theme in 1990s books, movies and television.

Another common theme that The Brethren exploits is corruption and flawed characters in the political system. The three judges are all criminals, but their “court” in the prison likely reduces the amount of violence and deceit amongst their fellow inmates. Meanwhile, Maynard is willing to kill fellow Americans in a terrorist attack in order to protect overall American interests. In order “to protect our way of life,” Maynard compromises his American ideals and power. Perhaps the fact that the book starts with the proceedings of The Brethren’s fake prison court is a commentary on the American judicial system.

Indeed, there are no truly “good” characters in The Brethren. All the characters come off as corrupt, sleazy, or at best, bitter about their lot in life. Grisham often comes across as cynical about American politics and law in his novels, and so the three judges may be the closest thing to his voice in this book. There is a somewhat black comedic element to the absurdity of the situation, as well as the CIA’s underhanded yet powerful tactics. This is perhaps why some critics have called the book a “guilty pleasure,” where it doesn’t matter about rooting for any one character because none of them are especially sympathetic.

The book’s plot is of particular note because, released in 2000, it came just before the 9/11 attacks and the Bush presidency, a time in which Americans would think very differently about a large military budget.