Camino Island by John Grisham (Dell, 2017)

John Grisham is a very good story teller. His writing style is engaging, characters are usually well draw. But, somehow Camino Island, published in 2017, falls short of the rest of Grisham's work, and seems amateurish.

The novel begins with the heist of five precious manuscripts by F. Scott Fitzgerald from the Firestone Library at Princeton University. The cadre of thieves include five; Mark, a thief who specializes in high end art and rare artifacts that can be sold back to the victims for a high fee, Denny, a thug who had been booted out of the Army Rangers, Jerry and Trey, two former convicts, and Ahmed, a hacker who works from his home in Buffalo, NY. Not being the brightest of criminals, Jerry and Mark are taken down by the FBI shortly after the robbery.

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However, neither of the robbers knows the fate of the five handwritten manuscripts, and the trail has, unfortunately, gone cold.

The novel changes course at this point, and a young author, Mercer Mann, who has scored one successful novel to her resume, is struggling with a severe case of writer's block. Things are looking poorly for the writer; she has just lost her job as an instructor of Creative Writing, and she owes heavy loans from her own education. Just as Mercer is about to become homeless, she receives a phone call from a mysterious woman who calls herself Elaine. The caller offers a proposition to Mercer which is an offer that the young writer cannot refuse. Help Elaine's clandestine organization to infiltrate the business dealings of a book store owner, Bruce Cable, who is reputed to deal in the rare book trade black market, and the organization will pay off Mercer's loans and then some. Could the manuscripts lifted from the Firestone Library be in Cable's hands?

Cable and his wife, Noelle, a successful dealer of antiques, live in a remote town called Santa Rosa, located on Camino Island, Florida. The couple enjoy an open marriage, a well known fact on the island. Elaine informs Mercer that the young woman won't have any difficulty capturing the attention of the charismatic Cable, who is known for his impeccable wardrobe of seersucker suits in Sonny Crockett pastels.

While Mercer is reluctant to become a spy, the lure of the money is too great to pass up once the offer is finalized. She takes up residence in her deceased grandmother's beach cottage on Camino Island, and reminisces about her grandmother, Tessa, who perished in a questionable boating accident. The body of the man who had accompanied her on the fatal boat trip had never been recovered, nor had the small vessel on which they had sailed. Tessa's remains had been discovered on a nearby beach.

Mercer quickly meets up with two women on the island who are both authors and know Cable. Through the aging couple, Mercer is introduced to the charming Cable, who does become very interested in her, both professionally and personally. Or so it seems.

The story is captivating enough, but the book reads like a rough draft. Certainly the ending lacks the usual Grisham wallop and there are many loose threads that are left dangling. For example, at one point Mercer has become interested in a young man whom she sees running along the beach every day. Just as she finally works up the nerve to start a conversation with him on his next jaunt along the water's edge, he fails to show up for the usual run. End of character; we never see him again. So, we would ask Grisham, what happened? Why was this guy even introduced? These types of loose ends are not typical of Grisham's writing.

Perhaps a sequel is in the planning because at the end of Camino Island Mercer finally realizes that she does have another book in her. If this is the case, it wouldn't be a big surprise if Grisham revisited the life and writing of Mercer Mann.

The one truly positive thing that Camino Island did accomplish for me, was the whetting of my appetite to revisit the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is referred to so glowingly in the novel. That being said, I foresee a Retro-review of Tender is the Night in the future of this column.