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Literary Glance: Camino Island by John Grisham

June 28, 2017

John Grisham usually writes about one thriller a year, and if you’ve been following his career since the early 1990’s, the novels can kind of blend together.  His latest book Camino Island isn’t a legal thriller like a lot of his books, but at least it starts off with a unique crime.

The first chapter is called “The Heist,” and sure enough, it’s about a small group of thieves stealing something.  The something in this case is “interesting,” especially for a guy like me who reads a lot of books.  If you like literature, you might enjoy reading the first part of Camino Island, just to see what these thieves are stealing.

It can be tough to write a scene where a lot is going on.  The writer has to juggle several characters and explain what each is doing without confusing the reader.  In this heist paragraph, Grisham begins to describe the heist quickly without getting bogged down in details:

By nine o’clock on a Tuesday night, Denny, Mark, and Jerry were inside the Firestone Library posing as grad students and watching the clock.  Their fake student IDs had worked perfectly; not a single eyebrow had been raised.  Denny found his hiding place in a third-floor women’s restroom.  He lifted a panel in a ceiling above the toilet, tossed up his student backpack, and settled in for a few hours of hot and cramped waiting.  Mark picked the lock of the main mechanical room on the first level of the basement and waited for alarms.  He heard none, nor did Ahmed, who had easily hacked into the university’s security systems.  Mark proceeded to dismantle the fuel injectors of the library’s backup electrical generator.  Jerry found a spot in a study carrel hidden among rows of stacked tiers holding books that had not been touched in decades.

That’s the actions of four characters getting described at once.  All four are in different locations, doing different stuff, and it was easy for the reader to follow.  At least, it was easy for me to follow.

The author didn’t get bogged down describing how Ahmed hacked the security system (I wouldn’t have understood it).  The author didn’t worry go into step-by-step details about how Mark took the fuel injectors apart (my eyes would have glazed over).  He simply explained what happened.  As a reader, I appreciate that.

As a writer, I might have changed a couple things (here comes the usual nit picky part of the Literary Glance).  I was taught never to use the phrase proceeded to.  Instead, I was taught that a writer should just state outright what the character did.  In this paragraph, Grisham wrote:

Mark proceeded to dismantle the fuel injectors…

I was taught (by writing instructors and writer’s groups) to say:

Mark dismantled the fuel injectors…

There was also a passive-verb sentence that caught my attention.

Their fake student IDs had worked perfectly; not a single eyebrow had been raised.

That could have written as…

Their fake student IDs had worked perfectly; no one even raised an eyebrow.

My writing instructors years ago would have gotten on my case about using such a cliché (nobody raised an eyebrow), but Camino Island is a bestselling novel.  I’m not sure how an author can write a novel without using the occasional (or even frequent) cliché.

I haven’t read everything by John Grisham, but I read a lot of his early stuff.  I still have a soft spot in my heart (cliché, I know, but this is a blog post, not literary fiction) for The Firm because it was pretty good and it came out of nowhere.  I might have to read The Firm again and see if it’s as good as I remember it.

Or maybe I should leave the fond memory alone.  I can get nit picky sometimes.

*****

What do you think?  How difficult is it to write a scene with several characters in it?  Should a bestselling author worry about nit picky stuff like passive voice verbs and clichés?

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