The latest John Grisham novel is in bookstores, and the good news is that he's back to writing thrillers. In recent years we've seen airline passengers...

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“The Broker”

by John Grisham

Doubleday, 357 pp., $27.95

The latest John Grisham novel is in bookstores, and the good news is that he’s back to writing thrillers. In recent years we’ve seen airline passengers nodding out over “A Painted House” and “Bleachers,” books they probably picked up in hopes of reading another one of Grisham’s lawyers-on-the-run page-turners. Instead, they got nostalgic tales drawn from Grisham’s childhood and youth.

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Longtime Grisham fans will be glad to know that in “The Broker” he’s returned to the formula that invigorated some of his most popular books, like “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Client.” This is one of his David-and-Goliath fables — a little guy battling a powerful, deadly enemy.

This time, the little guy is a former big shot: Joel Backman, once the wheeling-and-dealingest lawyer in Washington. Backman’s brilliant career came to a halt when he got involved with a scheme to peddle some spy-satellite technology to the highest bidder; several people wound up dead, and Backman wound up in prison. Now, after six years in solitary confinement, Backman is being offered a presidential pardon and relocation to Italy, where he’ll take on a new identity.

The catch is that the CIA is setting Backman up as a target. They want to see who wants him dead. The Russians? The Chinese? The Israelis? The Saudis? Once they know this, then they’ll know who’s really in control of the mysterious satellite.

The spy-satellite stuff is what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin: the thing that sets the plot in motion but you can forget about once it does. No one really cares or remembers exactly what it is that causes Cary Grant to be pursued by a crop-dusting plane and wind up hanging from Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest.” It was just a McGuffin. But “The Broker” is no “North by Northwest.” It’s more like “Torn Curtain,” one of those formulaic and unconvincing movies Hitchcock made in his last years.

The tension of the plot hinges on what we know that Backman doesn’t — and on what he’s going to do when he finally figures it out. To create tension, Grisham has to make us care what happens to Backman, and that’s a large order, given that the guy was originally a workaholic, womanizing, amoral sleaze who has somehow — and the somehow is never presented to us clearly — turned into someone we want to root for.

But the most serious flaw in “The Broker” is that Grisham never makes us believe that any of the novel is taking place in the real world. In his best books, Grisham’s heroes battled some convincingly hissable bad guys: racists, polluters, insurance companies, the tobacco industry. But the villains of “The Broker” are shadowy spies and international assassins; they come from a world that Grisham obviously doesn’t know firsthand, and consequently they radiate little menace.

Moreover, the novel takes place in some alternate universe in which the Sept. 11 attacks apparently didn’t happen, in which al Qaeda and global terrorism are not a threat. It’s a world with easily crossed borders and no Homeland Security alerts, where you can readily buy an unhackable, safely encrypted telecommunications system off the shelf. The world of “The Broker” seems sadly irrelevant to our own.

Despite that serious flaw, Grisham can be an engaging writer. Once you’ve started the book you’re not likely to give it up — he still has the knack of creating suspense, and you don’t feel too bummed out when the payoff is feeble.

He can also be very funny. The opening chapter presents us with an American president so inept and unpopular that in his re-election bid he lost every state except Alaska, the only state he didn’t visit during the campaign — and he won it by a 17-vote margin after a recount. The lame-duck president and his dysfunctional first family were so entertaining that I almost hoped the novel was going to be about them.

Another pleasant surprise in “The Broker” is that getting out of the South, where most of his novels have been set, seems to have refreshed Grisham’s ability to create an evocative setting. When he takes his hero to Bologna, Grisham tempts reviewers to make the kind of jokes that I will resist. Grisham describes the city so attractively that he’ll probably help boost tourism. On the other hand, there’s a little too much sightseeing in churches and lingering in restaurants. “The Broker” ambles like a tourist when it should dart like a hunted animal.