Note: The Brethren was published in 2000, so the social issues may seem a little out-of-sync with current times.....or maybe not.
Trumble Federal Prison near Jacksonville, Florida is a minimum security facility that hardly seems like a penitentiary: it has no fences, decent food, recreational facilities, and - as it turns out - opportunities for serious mischief.
Three of Trumble's older inmates are dubbed 'The Brethren': Joe Roy Spicer - a onetime Mississippi justice of the peace; Finn Yarber - a former California Supreme Court justice; and Hatlee Beech - an erstwhile federal judge from Texas. The Brethren handle appeals for other convicts; hold a weekly 'prison court' to iron out disputes among prisoners; and perpetrate a scam to rake in the moola.
The Brethren's scam involves 'catfishing' closeted homosexual men who can't risk being outed. To perpetrate the hoax, the judges - using the name Ricky - place an ad in an alternative lifestyle magazine. Ricky says that he's in a rehab facility, feels very lonely, and would like to correspond with a mature man. In the accompanying photo, Ricky seems to be a handsome young guy with an irresistible crooked smile.
When men answer Ricky's ad, the judges check them out. If the responder has money and a family, Ricky (really Judge Yarber or Judge Beech) writes back. He inveigles the victim into an epistolary love affair, asks for cash for incidentals, and arranges to meet when he gets out of rehab. Eventually, the judges lower the boom. They tell the poor dupe he's been scammed and demand $100,000 (or more).....or they'll send copies of the letters to his wife.
The Brethren need an outside person to assist with their scam, so they hire a shlubby local lawyer named Trevor Carson. Trevor sneaks letters in and out of Trumble, handles the blackmail money, and investigates victims as needed (for example, if they use fake names).
Meanwhile, the United States is in the midst of a presidential campaign and CIA Dirctor Teddy Maynard - who's worried about Russian aggression - plans to get his candidate elected. Teddy has chosen Congressman Aaron Lake, a quiet widower whose one campaign issue (dictated by Teddy) is to double defense spending.
Teddy coerces contributors (mostly weapons manufacturers) to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Lake's campaign and - even worse - permits (or organizes) terrorist activities to frighten the American public. Lake keeps rising in the polls, and it appears that he'll be a shoo-in for President.
As many readers will guess, it turns out that Aaron Lake is a secret homosexual who gets caught up in The Brethren's flimflam. When the CIA Director gets wind of this, he'll do whatever it takes to 'save' his candidate. Moreover, Teddy has the whole CIA at his disposal!
For the rest of the book, the judges and Teddy's operatives try to out-think and outmaneuver each other. The CIA bugs cars, homes, and offices; looks into bank accounts; follows people; and so on. But the judges are wily fellows.....and they make worthy opponents.
There's not a single likable main character in this book and I hoped every single one of them would go down in flames. Of course that doesn't happen (and I really didn't really expect it to). Nevertheless, I was disappointed in the book's finale. In addition, there's a whiff of homophobia about the story (IMO)....though this may have been unintentional.
One thing I do like about the book is the judges garb for 'prison court.' The judges wear lime green choir robes (sometimes with nothing underneath) and the 'bailiff' wears a long wig (like British barristers) and lavender slippers. One of the judges goes barefoot, and makes it his business to crack his toes and clean his toenails while adjudicating. All this is pretty amusing.
This isn't one of Grisham's better efforts, but he's a capable writer and the story held my attention. Still, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this book.