The Broker becomes the pawn in Grisham's latest thriller. A new president is about to be inaugurated, and as the current president prepares his pardons, he accepts one name on the advice of the head of the CIA: Joel Backman. The CIA plans to release Backman in another country, later drop a few hints to interested spy networks across the globe (the Saudis, the Russians, the Chinese and the Israelis, to name a few) and wait to see who is the first to take him out.
Joel Backman, ex-lobbyist and Washington power broker doing time in a federal prison, is pardoned after only six years of a twenty-year sentence. The Agency spirits Backman away from the States and into Bologna, Italy, where he is expected to mix into an entirely foreign culture without being noticed. Either that, or he will be discovered and assassinated.
In a world of spy satellites and sophisticated electronics, each nation struggles to maintain the advantage over the others. Six years before, when Backman brokered a satellite network deal that got him into trouble with the federal government, he made some powerful enemies, all engaged in a never-ending technology race, looking for an edge. Now Backman has the opportunity to use his finely-honed Washington skills with even more persuasive motivation: his own life.
Although the plot differs substantially from Grisham‘s successful first novel, The Firm, the theme is familiar - the underdog versus the heavy lifters. The chase is a plot that Grisham does best, an unevenly-matched protagonist fighting to outmaneuver the vast resources of power as professional spies organize to be the first on the scene to take Backman out.
While The Broker is not as tautly conceived as The Firm, Grisham inserts a number of complications, especially in the last few chapters, concentrating on Backman and his natural instincts toward survival, especially once the killer networks move into position. With Backman as the focus of every assassin at large, he needs more than luck to pull this deal off, although plot depth and character development take a back seat to the intricacies of the chase.
However, in the context of an American hiding in plain sight in a foreign country, there is ample praise for the city's architecture, gourmet dishes and cosmopolitan citizens to pique the curiosity of travelers and epicures alike. Grisham clearly has an appreciation for all things Italian and enthusiastically describes the endless charms of Bologna.