Literary Techniques

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Grisham shifts narrative focus back-and-forth between Mitch and the firm. While not completely giving away the firm's background, Grisham lets the reader know more than Mitch knows. Thus the reader does not so much figure out the mystery as Mitch does, but instead watches Mitch catch up. At the midway point, in a scene that uses as a striking backdrop the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the FBI Director explains to Mitch (and to readers) the origins of the firm. Thereafter, Grisham continues to shuttle scenes between the hero and the villains, letting readers experience how the threat against Mitch mounts within the firm. The chief result of this dual tracking of scenes is the build-up of suspense: How will Mitch learn what the firm really is? Then, how will Mitch escape what the firm plans for him? The technique establishes the difference between a mystery and a thriller. In the former, the hero would grow suspicious, gradually unravel the secrets of the firm, and then expose them at the novel's climax. In contrast, in the thriller, what we have here, the hero may also detect the answer to a mystery, but mostly he must evade grave danger.

Grisham retains the wiseacre narrative style evident in the earlier novel A Time to Kill. He describes the people of Grand Cayman as "twenty percent white, twenty percent black, and the other sixty percent wasn't sure and didn't care." An FBI agent reads a warrant that automatically includes mail fraud and muses that he "was not sure where the mail fraud fit, but he worked for the FBI and had never seen a case that did not include mail fraud." This deadpan humor leavens what could be a story only about suspense. Grisham gives his readers both chills and grins.

Social Concerns

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As his first success and as a title with over eleven million copies in print, Grisham's The Firm merits special consideration. A good overview for Grisham's work appears in the comments by Stanley Fish of Duke University's English Department and Law School that appeared in Adrienne Drell's 1994 article on lawyer-authors for the ABA Journal. Referring to the popularity of legal thrillers, Fish states, "I think people are fascinated by the law and welcome sex and courtroom drama ... or the opportunity to learn something about a technical corner of the law." Drell quotes Fish again later in the article: "By the end of these novels, the reader gets a sense of double satisfaction by finding an answer to the legal puzzle and also by participating in the solution of the protagonist's private puzzle." That is, the genre works by combining the portrayal of a special realm (the law) with a personal and involving crisis for the main character.

Although the characters never go to court, The Firm gives readers an insider's view of how law firms hire and treat their staff and associates, how nonlitigators fill their time, how work in tax law consists of looking for loopholes, how lawyers think. The Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke is not typical in its hiring nor in its practice, yet the novel still gives readers the idea of the day-to-day drudge work and expectations that young lawyers endure. Of course, because this firm exists to serve the legal interests of a Mafia crime family, the novel further offers explanations of how a criminal enterprise can work: how to smuggle ill-gotten cash to safe accounts in the Cayman Islands, how to appear legitimate, how to protect secrecy. To a large extent, all of Grisham's novels portray how-things-work, thereby offering readers an instructive glimpse to an enclosed, specialized world where few readers have ever been.

The novel's crisis concerns how Mitch McDeere, age twenty-five, in the top five of his Harvard Law School class and seduced into becoming an associate for Bendini, Lambert & Locke, will handle the knowledge of the firm's nefarious purposes. Once he learns that the firm has its goons follow him, bugs the rooms of his home, and has people killed, he sensibly realizes that he is not safe among them. Yet turning to the federal government, which zealously pursues him as a potential witness against the firm, does not offer the security he wants. First, they are cheap in the monetary negotiations — Mitch wants a large amount from them. Second, the witness protection program offers, in Mitch's view, only a drab and suspicious future; Mitch is convinced that he and his wife will live always in fear. Third, the FBI proves unreliable when an insider sells Mitch's name to the Mafia, necessitating Mitch to make a dramatic escape. Grisham appeals to the commonly held view that the federal government cannot manage to do much right; Mitch just does not trust that the FBI can deliver effectively on its promises. Grisham does not suggest that the government is as corrupt as the firm, but rather that the government is less efficient than Mitch needs it to be. Significantly, civic duty offers only a minor pull on Mitch's conscience. Turning in the firm because doing so would be right is only a secondary issue. Mitch's priority is to preserve his and his wife's lives, to escape in a way in which they rely on no one but themselves for their safety. While Grisham does not push the point, the novel does address the conflicted reasonings of witnesses in criminal cases who feel great threat and cannot trust the authorities to rescue them.

Mitch gets into this crisis because he answered the siren call of money; the allure of lucre is the novel's great issue, an allure Mitch never really escapes. He goes to Memphis because he is offered $80,000 as a base salary, a low-interest mortgage, a BMW, and guarantees of greater wealth if he works hard. Yet he tries to extort millions from the FBI, insisting on a down-payment of a full million which he can squirrel safely in a foreign bank. He eventually loots the illegal accounts of the firm's clients to build a cache for his escape. The novel's chief issue in evaluating Mitch is what he has learned about the desire for money, beyond how to sate that desire. In a strongly negative review (July 1991) in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, Pagan Kennedy charges that the novel "simultaneously worships and demonizes money." What Kennedy dismisses as a flaw really may be the book's most challenging aspect: Grisham realistically renders wealth as a primary motivation and offers a character who despite a great deal of goodwill and self-awareness cannot escape the worship of the demon money.

Literary Precedents

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Doubleday's design for the novel's dust jacket, a man in a suit suspended by guide-wires against a marblelike background, recalls the symbol of the hand on the puppet strings used for the book covers and film posters for Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969). Yet while Puzo crafts an inside narrative of the Mafia, Grisham leaves readers largely on the outside, only seeing the mob members through the tangential figures of DeVasher and others in the firm. The best precedents and comparisons for The Firm are other examples of the thriller genre — such as books by Stuart Woods or Ken Follett or even Tom Clancy — to evaluate how Grisham embraces yet stretches the generic limitations.

Adaptations

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Paramount's 1993 film version of The Firm, directed by Sydney Pollock and scripted by David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel, met with considerable box office success. Among the film's key strengths are the ways the supporting players flesh out their characters. Especially the women, Abby portrayed by Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tammy by Holly Hunter, gain depth and have meatier scenes than the portraits of them that appear in the novel. Hunter earned an Academy Award nomination for her work. Gene Hack-man adds strength and presence to his portrayal of Avery Tolar, a character who could have been played as a forgettable weakling. And Wilford Brimley, who appeared in his earlier work as a benign grandfather-type, provides considerable menace by underplaying DeVasher.

The film's deviations from the book, however, disturbed Grisham's most loyal fans. Typical of Hollywood treatment, the movie mutes the troubling and darker aspects of the book. As played by Tom Cruise, Mitch retains a sense of ethics and ultimately rejects the temptation of money. In the film adaptation, Mitch resolves the dilemma not by fleeing to the islands with the firm's money, but by devising a method to snare the firm that removes the Mafia's threat against him and Abby. The script whitewashes Mitch by removing his acquisitiveness, essentially watering down the book's edge. The film also ignores the scene in the book in which Ray must kill someone to effect their escape. The film also alters the portrayal of FBI agent Wayne Tarranee, played by Ed Harris, to make the FBI seem as threatening and as malevolent as the firm. In the novel, Tarrance is cool and insistent, whereas in the film he often becomes histrionic. Many fans of the novel further complained that the movie removed an important icon: Mitch's car in the film is not a BMW.

D. W. Moffett reads the abridged Bantam audio version, and George Guidall reads the complete text for Recorded Books.

Bibliography

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Grisham, John. “The Rise of the Legal Thriller: Why Lawyers Are Throwing the Books at Us.” The New York Times Book Review 97 (October 18, 1992): 33. Grisham analyzes the rise of the “lawyer novel,” a phenomenon to which he has contributed as much as any author. He discusses the abiding fascination with the law of the reading public and how lawyers have turned to fiction in order to satisfy this interest. In addition to his own work, he considers that of other lawyers turned writers and their varying approaches.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Law’s Labors Lost.” New Republic 210 (March 14, 1994): 32-38. Klinkenborg reviews five books that deal with legal themes. In the latter part of the essay, Klinkenborg focuses on The Firm, citing it as a “notorious” example of portraying the culture of lawyers as opposed to the “nature of the law.”

Landner, M. “An Overnight Success—After Six Years.” Business Week (April 19, 1992): 52. That a magazine such as Business Week, aimed at the commercial community, should include an article on an adventure novelist indicates clearly the extent to which Grisham has been a financial success and how that success has drawn the attention of people other than his readers. Landner traces Grisham’s remarkable career as a writer who struggled for years to write a successful book.

Matthews, Thomas. “Book ’em.” Newsweek 121 (March 15, 1993): 78-81. A review of Grisham’s fourth novel. The Client (1993), which, like the two before it, The Firm and The Pelican Brief, immediately appeared on best-seller lists. Matthews considers this work and those that preceded it in relation to the genre of the “lawyer novel.” He also analyzes the phenomenal success that made Grisham one of the most widely read American authors in the space of only three years.

Pringle, Mary Beth. John Grisham: A Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. Pringle explains the genre of the legal thriller, tracing its evolution from the thriller tradition and detective fiction, as well as the romance, gothic, and crime novels. Following a biographical chapter on Grisham, she devotes a chapter to each of his novels, including a penetrating study on The Firm.

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