Wednesday 29 April 2020


Camino Winds has a selling point which neither author nor publisher could have expected. With coronavirus sweeping through care homes, killing many who are, at least in the UK, slow to be added to the pandemic death tolls, John Grisham's second book set on Camino Island, in the wake of being hit by Hurricane Leo, takes a change of direction as abrupt and unexpected as Leo's own capricious path of destruction, into a chilling tale of abuse within American care homes, exploited for huge profit.

It is a story of two halves. Grisham brings us back to the Florida island and book-store owner and sometimes gray-area rare-books dealer Bruce Cable, again surrounded by his 'gang' of writers and poetasting literati. The first half builds up following the path of Leo as it approaches (his anthropomorphic descriptions of Leo are effectively suspenseful) and then hits the island, leaving behind the dead body of one of the 'gang', novelist Nelson Kerr, apparently felled by a tree branch ton loose in the winds. But led by college student and part-time bookstore employee Nick, who has read every crime novel ever published, Cable and Crew soon establish it's a murder, not an accident at all.

So far so good: it looks like it is going to be a locked-island mystery: virtually everyone evacuated with Leo approaching, which would limit your suspects nicely, and the sleepy local police slow and unwilling to react to it as a homicide. Except another of the 'gang', crime novelist and ex-con Bob, appears to have come into exceedingly close contact with the likely killer, a contract pro who is just as likely long gone from the locked room.

And here the story switches gears for the second half, into a medical conspiracy thriller, something like Michael Crichton or Robin Cook. Because Nelson Kerr's novels exposed corporate crime, and it seems he knew that nursing homes are using a dangerous drug to prolong the lives of non-responsive patients, in order to keep collecting fees for their care from the government.

The previous novel, Camino Island, also switched gears mid-way, starting as a heist novel, then becoming a sort of cat and mouse love story, part caper thriller and part education of the young would-be writer Mercer Mann. The switch worked in part because the story became more personal, and its overall success depended on just how much you cared about the relationship between Cable (in an open marriage with his French wife, who spends the summers in France with her lover) and Mann, one in which he educates her in the book business, writing and crime, as well as love.

Camino Winds reverses the order, and this is where the problem lies, because the story become less personal in its second half, especially because Grisham's strong point is page-turning plot, not characterisation. Mann comes back, on the final leg of a book tour for her wildly successful novel, with her new man in tow, and appears once or twice to provide incidental conveniences for the plot. She is much less interesting with her new distance from Bruce, and really, there is no other character to take her place. Apart from a couple of minimum wage employees in Kentucky nursing homes, who are draw rather well, few of the characters exhibit much if any character, and it's hard to tell their lines apart, much less visualise them. They don't require much depth, but in a series you would expect to be able to recognise recurring characters. Even the biggest emotional moment for Bruce, a big decision to be made with his wife Noelle, is passed by almost incidentally, and Noelle doesn't get much to say.

The mechanics of this medical conspiracy are intriguing, and the plot clicks. It's a nice twist to see the firm that tried to out-fox Cable in the first book brought back on his side (at what seems a ridiculous bargain rate, given the expenses they seem to incur and the big prize that's there to be won) but you long for the two women running the show to be fleshed out, at least for Bruce's sake. It's as if, having committed himself to Noelle, women cease to exist. Which makes you wonder why Mercer's name is Mann. And there's a very gratuitous plot twist involving two hit people who suddenly both fail at their jobs.

In the end, however, the emotional power is just missing. Grisham at best is a utilitarian writer, but here the prose is sloppy to the point of distraction. The 'gang', which seems a rather adolescent way to describe this group, are reintroduced more than once, though the descriptions remain the same, and unenlightening. The crux of Kerr's new novel, for which he is killed, is summarized three times, once for someone who's supposed to have read it. Other details come up as if for the first time, even when they've been previously explained. So by the time the gears all click into the place, the question of whether or not Kerr's work will be finished is all we are left with, and somehow it does not seem enough.

Camino Winds by John Grisham

Hodder & Stoughton, £20, ISBN 9781529342451

Note: this review appeared first at Shots:

Monday 27 April 2020


I've written a long piece about Steve Dalkowski, the legendary lefty, who died last week. It's up at Medium, and if you use this link, you can bypass the pay wall. It's a story about talent and failure, and one that's been part of baseball lore for 60 years. Ron Shelton heard it when he was an Orioles farmhand, and used it in Bull Durham for the Nuke LaLoosh character...

Friday 17 April 2020


With the sixth season of Bosch debuting tonight on Amazon Prime, I've written about the way the show's visuals work to set scenes, and also to set the tone of the whole series. It's at Medium, and you can follow this link to read it while dodging the paywall.

Tuesday 14 April 2020


I've written another long essay on a recently-deceased NFL player. In this case it's Bobby Mitchell, Jim Brown's running mate in Cleveland and then the first player to break the NFL apartheid in Washington with the Redskins. You can read it at my column, Friday Morning Tight End if you subscribe to it (£2/$3 a month) or at Medium by following this link which will bypass the paywall at a site which remains a good value.

Wednesday 8 April 2020


I've written a long essay on Tom Dempsey, who died of coronoavirus while living in a rest home where he was being treated for dementia. It's a bit of a reminiscence about my young football days too. It went up yesterday at on my subscription football site, FMTE, and is today up at Medium, where this link will let you read it bypassing the paywall, if that's the way you rock.