John Grisham (GRIHSH-uhm) is known primarily for his novels, but in 2006 he published The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, a nonfiction work that examines the wrongful conviction of a suspect in a 1982 Oklahoma murder case.
John Grisham joined novelist-lawyer Scott Turow in establishing and popularizing the genre of legal fiction. Grisham is one of a small group of American novelists whose books are often termed “blockbusters”; so popular are his novels that they are almost guaranteed to lead the best-seller lists from the moment they are published. Publishers Weekly called Grisham the “best-selling novelist of the 1990’s.” Many of his novels have been made into films, including The Firm (1993), The Rainmaker (1997), and Runaway Jury (2003).
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.
Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Section on Grisham discusses how his novels have changed over the years. Anderson states that Grisham is the best of the mega-selling novelists in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
Bearden, Michelle. “John Grisham: In Six Years He’s Gone from Rejection Slips to Mega-Sales.” Publishers Weekly 240 (February, 1993): 70-71. The author discusses Grisham’s early career and his rise to best-selling writer.
Best, Nancy, ed. Readings on John Grisham. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Essays cover his personal life and writing process, the genre of legal thriller, and the themes and issues in his various novels.
Cauthen, Cramer R., and Donald G. Alpin III. “The Gift Refused: The Southern Lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, The Client, and Cape Fear.” Studies in Popular Culture 19, no. 2 (October, 1996): 257-275. A comparative study of the treatment of the southern lawyer in modern popular fiction.
Duffy, Martha. “Grisham’s Law.” Time 145, no. 19 (May 8, 1995): 87-88. Takes a look at Grisham’s life and influence at the time of the publication of The Rainmaker.
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