John Grisham writes legal thrillers, a type of novel that has virtually become a genre of its own in recent years. Grisham credits writer Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (1987) with beginning the trend, but his own novels have served to define that trend. If, as conventional wisdom holds, Americans do not like lawyers, they have shown that they certainly do like books about lawyers. The reading public has purchased vast numbers of Grisham’s books and those of other writers of fiction dealing with the legal profession.
With The Firm, Grisham began a pattern (some critics call it a formula) that he has used, with variations, in most of his succeeding books. His plots usually center on protagonists who are young and in some way vulnerable, and who are placed in extraordinary circumstances. They find themselves fighting against overwhelming odds in situations in which they should not be able to prevail. Ultimately they may win out over antagonists of apparently superior strength: the U.S. government, the Mafia, giant insurance companies. Grisham cannot be counted on to give his readers a standard happy ending, however.
Early in Grisham’s career, some critics faulted him for shallow character development and for implausible plots; other critics pointed out, however, that popular fiction is virtually defined by such plots. Many observers have noted Grisham’s development as a writer over the course of his career. They have praised his ability to, among other things, accurately portray the American South during the early years of racial integration, as southerners attempted to come to grips with the Civil Rights movement. Grisham himself has said that he writes “to grab readers. This isn’t serious literature.” Still, some of Grisham’s books stand apart from other action thrillers because of the author’s genuine interest in, and engrossing presentation of, social concerns affecting modern readers.
Grisham’s books are based in the legal profession that he pursued for many years and are usually set in the South, the region in which he grew up and with which he is deeply familiar. Readers familiar with southern settings find few false notes in Grisham’s descriptions of his settings in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Readers curious about the internal functioning of the legal world undoubtedly find his books satisfying in their detailed outlining of how the law works in actual practice. Grishham’s novels also educate readers about how the American legal system operates and why it functions as it does. In some of his later novels, Grisham has taken on the topic of the influence of politics on the legal system, examining how politics and the law both work together and come into conflict.
A Time to Kill
A Time to Kill, set in Mississippi, begins with the brutal rape of a young black girl by two white men. The child survives, and the men are arrested, but before they can be tried, the girl’s father shoots and kills them both. The question of his guilt is not at issue; he has committed the killings in public, in full view of numerous witnesses. The plot centers on whether the jury can be convinced to release a man who has acted to avenge a terrible crime inflicted on his family.
In this novel, Grisham considers the uneasy nature of race relations in modern Mississippi; he spares neither black nor white southerners in his examination of the manipulations for position and media attention related to a highly publicized trial. Some critics have argued that the character development in this novel is richer than in Grisham’s subsequent works. The book suffers from faults common to first novels, however; Grisham fails to tie up some of his plot lines in ways that more experienced writers might. Once finished with a character or situation, he tends simply to abandon the person or issue without resolution. Nonetheless, some critics—and Grisham himself—consider this his best book.
In The Firm, Grisham debuted the formula that would propel his books to the top of the best-seller lists. Protagonist Mitch McDeere is graduating third in his Harvard Law School class. He has several job offers, but the best is from a firm in Memphis, which offers an outstanding salary, an expensive car, an accessible purchase of an expensive home—all sounding too good to be true. Mitch begins to have questions about the firm almost at once: Why has no one ever quit? What about the two people who died a few years back? The law firm has a dirty secret, which would be deadly for Mitch to find out: The firm works for the Mafia. Once Mitch learns this, he must also learn enough to bargain for his life. The plot of The Firm is fast-paced and fairly straightforward. The novel has been called simplistic, but in some ways—concerns of popular fiction aside—it also seems more realistic than some of Grisham’s later works. That is, one might actually imagine the events of this book happening; in some subsequent Grisham books, one would be hard put to believe that the events portrayed would occur.
The Chamber represents a departure from Grisham’s two preceding novels. Dealing as it does with the imposition of the death penalty, the book is the first of Grisham’s novels to take on a social...
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