A followup to the literary harmlessness began in 2017’s Camino Island, Camino Winds once again has John Grisham playing with sequels and world-building, a publishing necessity he appeared to accept wholeheartedly following 2013’s A Time to Kill follow-up Sycamore Row. Critics – including yours truly – called the book beach-friendly, a designation usually meant to deride or lower its appeal to all but the most sunscreen-drenched sun soaker.
That’s not untrue, but we saw a breezier, nonchalant Grisham willing to let his guard down and poke some much-needed fun at his own industry for a change. With all the lightness of a Tiki bar cocktail, it’s slightly salty and goes down smooth, its mission over before you even know it. At the very least, it’s better than last year’s The Guardians.
Murder has come to Camino Island! The leisurely Floridian getaway known for boozy writerly gatherings and boozier gossip has been devastated by Hurricane Leo, obliterating the economy and leaving several dead – including visiting writer Nelson Kerr, a former lawyer (naturally). His death was originally thought to be the result of blunt force trauma sustained during the storm, and with much of the island on lockdown there’s scarce resources for the police to investigate any further.
But there’s evidence pointing to another theory, that Nelson’s death was no accident. Now it’s up to his literary friends to follow a trail of clues and intuitions, one that includes sexy assassins, insurance fraud, wayward nurses and shady investigators. You could say it sounds like something right out of a mystery novel. You’d be correct!
It turns out Nelson made a bundle as a whistleblower for a corrupt defense contractor illegally selling military goods to the Iranians and North Koreans. His brief literary career focused on thrillers about “arms dealers, drug dealers, money launderers, gun runners, corporate crooks, shady defense contractors”, making him a favorite amongst readers who valued his impeccable attention to detail and realism, inspired no doubt by his proximity to the real thing. Nelson’s final, unpublished novel may hold clues to who killed him – and why.
The plot, in a clearly meta winking fashion, could easily be that of an actual Grisham novel; illicit Chinese drugs are helping keep Alzheimer’s patients alive long enough for greedy nursing homes to bilk Medicare for every last penny. Flaxacill, aka vitamin E3, is able to prolong life in the most stricken of dementia patients, keeping their hearts pumping when their minds have long stopped working. Grisham, whose literary career has focused nearly as much on social issues as legal ones, seems to be towing a very delicate line here given the growing focus on the ill-treatment of nursing home patients in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grisham wisely demotes the alliterative heroine of Camino Island, Mercer Mann, to little more than a guest star spot, only stopping by the Island to promote her best-selling book on the tail end of a successful tour. Instead, he promotes Bruce Cable, proprietor and social head of the island’s most celebrated bookstore and literary gathering spot, Bay Books, to the lead. Last seen at the center of a disappointingly undeveloped subplot to pilfer stolen handwritten manuscripts by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the last adventure, Bruce managed to escape with the legal equivalent of a flesh wound, those the scandal did wonders for his rascally reputation.
As the lead Bruce is just the right mixture of interestingly blandness to power an improbable plot through to its inevitable conclusion, as if a tidy resolution were ever in doubt. That’s not a slight on Grisham, or of the cozy confines of the genre sandbox he’s chosen to play in with this series. There’s actually something quite comforting about having a forgone resolution to look forward to, especially with shades of the “old” Grisham omnipresent enough to keep the ship from veering too hard into total nonsense, like a comforting breeze on a hot summer day.
Camino Winds performs all the necessary functions of a proper sequel, expanding the world first introduced in Camino Island while fleshing out familiar characters with a story that’s better and more interesting this time around. Because of these things it also comes dangerously close to becoming a more traditional John Grisham legal thriller than its breezier predecessor, which could be a bonus for those longtime fans who feared their favorite legal author might go the way of serialized Merchant Ivory melodrama. That’s not the case here, not yet anyway.