Grisham’s growing connection to North Carolina


John Grisham’s latest novel, “Camino Island,” hit the bookstore shelves on June 6.

The book’s release marks a growing connection between our state and the bestselling author—more than 300 million in print at last count. Thus, it is an important moment for North Carolinians, some of whom are claiming Grisham as one of their own.

They have some good arguments.

For the first time in many years, he is going on a book tour to promote his book. Of the 11 scheduled stops, four are in North Carolina, twice as many as in any other state. Along the way he is inviting other North Carolina literary giants—Randall Kenan, Jill McCorkle, John Hart, Ron Rash, Wiley Cash and Clyde Edgerton—to discuss his work and theirs.

Another connection is the new book’s leading character, Mercer Mann, a fictional writing instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is losing her job and suffering writer’s block as she tries to write a novel to follow up her first mildly successful one. She is at loose ends and a prime target to be recruited for an undercover assignment. More about that assignment in a minute.

Her recruiter comes to Chapel Hill and wines and dines Mercer at Spanky’s and the Lantern restaurants, two of the town’s favorites, and not far from the house where Grisham and his wife Renee live when they visit their daughter and her family in Raleigh.

Now that we have almost made Grisham a North Carolinian, what about the new book?

“Camino Island” breaks some of Grisham’s usual patterns. As regular as clockwork for many years, each October Grisham has delivered a legal thriller that quickly becomes a bestseller. But “Camino Island” came out this month instead of October. And it is not a legal thriller. Lawyers make only cameo appearances. The action is set in the literary world, the world of writing, publishing, and selling books. There is also a literary underworld of criminals who steal and distribute valuable manuscripts.

In “Camino Island” a group of clever thieves break into the Princeton University library and walk away with the original manuscripts of “The Great Gatsby” and four other novels written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The papers are insured for $25 million. The insurance company suspects that Bruce Cable, a rare book dealer and bookstore owner, has possession of the Fitzgerald papers. Cable is the center of a group of writers, fans, and book collectors on Camino Island, a small resort community near Jacksonville, Florida.

The insurance company sends Elaine Shelby to Chapel Hill to recruit Mercer to go to Camino Island, where she once had family connections. There she can infiltrate Cable’s group, make friends with him, and try to learn whether or not he has the Fitzgerald papers.

Along the way Mercer loses confidence in her ability to fool Cable. Elaine, trying to persuade her to stay on the job, tells her that the cover is perfect, “You’re a writer living at the beach for a few months in the family cottage. You’re hard at work on a novel. It’s the perfect story, Mercer, because it’s true. And you have the perfect personality because you’re genuine. If we needed a con artist we wouldn’t be talking right now. Are you afraid?”

Sure enough Mercer gains Cable’s friendship and the story moves toward an expected ending. Then, Grisham does his usual, twisting the expected into a set of cascading surprises that fooled and entertained this reader just as he does in his legal thrillers.

If you are worried about missing his regular annual legal thriller, don’t. He promises that a new one will be ready, as always, in October.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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