Although writing was not his first career, John Grisham has opened the genre of legal thriller to audiences who grew up watching Perry Mason (1957-1966) on television. He began writing his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989), while he was practicing law during the 1980’s. It was this decade that filled the headlines with stories of greed and corruption in the legal profession. By writing about lawyers who were more like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), he managed to redeem the profession while offering a realistic view of the criminal world. He gained fame with his second book, The Firm (1991), about a naïve recent Harvard graduate who accepts an offer he cannot refuse from a corrupt Memphis law firm. Grisham attributes the success of his second book to an article in Writer’s Digest which provided a formula for writing a suspense novel. The success of The Firm afforded Grisham the luxury of walking away from his practice to pursue writing full time.
After publishing A Time to Kill, Grisham wrote best-selling legal thrillers at the rate of one per year until 2001, when he branched into other genres and formats. A Painted House (2001) is a fictionalized autobiography, and the novel Skipping Christmas (2001) is filled with humor. Both highlight the author’s skill as a master storyteller. In 2003, Grisham wrote Bleachers, a fictionalized memoir about high school football and the issues surrounding returning to one’s hometown. He also has written two screenplays and the nonfictional The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town (2006). Despite being considered formulaic by the critics, Grisham’s novels often occupy spots on The New York Times best-seller list.
Grisham’s novels are concerned with the underdog who, against all odds, takes on giant corporations, “big government,” or terrorism and often wins. By including average people in his heroic plots, Grisham enables his massive readership to imagine themselves as characters in his novels. He also restores people’s faith in their government by having the protagonist win despite the greatest of odds. The idea of the underdog taking on a massive corporation, the Mafia, or another antagonist of gigantic proportions is part of American culture and features in most of Grisham’s works.