Three years ago, John Grisham came up with a new formula for success. He ditched the lawyers to write an actual beach book, sand and all. This wouldn’t be much of a departure for some authors, but coming from Grisham it was a delightful surprise — all the more so because the sand was on the fictitious Camino Island, a Florida resort featuring one of the world’s great bookstores, stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, a colony of gossipy writers and a lot of languid vacation time. It also starred a woman, Mercer Mann, who put the book squarely in Reese Witherspoon country.
Anyone who enjoyed “Camino Island” came away hoping it was the start of a series. So readers may be glad to know that a sequel has arrived, although its tone isn’t nearly as light. If “Camino Winds” is breezy, that’s mostly because its plot involves a ferocious hurricane. This is a Camino book with elements of a more traditional Grisham thriller thrown in.
Mercer, who was a fledgling author in “Camino Island,” is now a literary and commercial success. The novel opens with a dinner party celebrating the end of her 34-stop book tour, which naturally brings her to Bruce Cable’s renowned Bay Books. With the authority of someone who’s been doing whatever he likes for decades, Grisham has planted an extraordinary bookshop on Camino, with Bruce as the bon vivant who runs it.
Bruce is so passionate about his work that he often has flings with female writers who stop by. This is the kind of thing that could get Grisham into trouble if he had a pricklier following, but in “Camino Winds” it just adds to the gossipy atmosphere that hovers over the dinner party. We get full Southern hospitality in this early scene, from Bruce’s “magazine quality” table settings and candelabras to the menu to the chatter.
The biggest earner, who writes books about young vampires, is a bore about her movie. The ex-con is teased about his subject matter: “Please, Bob,” someone says. “No more prison stories. After your last book I felt I’d been gang-raped.” (In this crowd, that’s a compliment.) The “brooding poet” who never sells books is advised to write something raunchier under another name. The thriller writer who used to work as a high-powered lawyer tells fishing stories. And Mercer’s new two-book deal is envied but celebrated.
Then, with the literary chatter behind him, Grisham brings on the hurricane and the real story. Camino Island is hit hard — and Nelson Kerr, the lawyer-turned-thriller writer, shows up dead.
Nelson had an unfinished book. Was he killed because of something that was in it? Want to guess?
Suddenly we find ourselves amid downed trees and heaps of wreckage, as Camino goes from island paradise to disaster area. In the midst of all this, Bruce, the prison writer Bob and Nick Sutton, a college kid who works summers in the bookstore, start their detective work. Nick is an entertaining character because he inhales crime novels and is thrilled to be able to start acting like a character in one. He starts saying things like “Just what I suspected” almost immediately.
Mercer fades into the background. And now we’re left with these three amigos, as Grisham calls them at one point, hunting down “the bad guys” (a phrase this book uses a lot). While “Camino Island” offered a sexy plot hook in the form of those Fitzgerald manuscripts, “Camino Winds” turns out to have a more serious, issue-oriented one. It has nothing to do with Camino or the bookstore and is more like the for-profit law school scam found in Grisham’s last legal thriller, “The Rooster Bar.”
Grisham knows how to tell stories like that. And to his credit, he doesn’t entirely jettison the vacation mentality here, even if Camino itself is sidelined by disaster. There’s only so much time he can devote to having Bruce and his friends clear debris, after all, so over the course of the yearlong narrative he finds reasons to send them to hotels and meals elsewhere. But the island, the bookstore and the heroine were the first book’s main attractions, if only for their novelty in the Grishamverse. They are missed.
“Camino Winds” was intended as escapist entertainment, but its timing unavoidably gives it a different resonance. Camino Island will recover, but during most of the book it’s a shadow of its carefree old self. Tourists are gone and businesses are struggling. The story eventually involves many patients on life support. And Grisham, who is drawn to big issues but generally keeps politics out of his writing, uses the phrase “pull a Trump” to describe dodging liability by filing for bankruptcy. Come to think of it, “Camino Winds” is right for this moment after all.