John Grisham 1955(?)–
The following entry provides an overview of Grisham's career through 1994.
An immensely popular author of "legal thrillers," Grisham is best known for his novel The Firm (1991), which centers around a recent Harvard Law School graduate who, after learning that his firm is heavily involved in organized crime, risks his life to help the FBI indict his associates and their Mob bosses. Although his novels are sometimes characterized as simplistic thrillers, lacking plausible plots and developed characters, Grisham is often praised for highly suspenseful, compelling narratives that display his extensive legal knowledge. Grisham has stated: "I write to grab readers. This isn't serious literature."
Grisham was born in Arkansas, but during his childhood he and his family moved frequently so his father, an itinerant construction worker, could find employment. When Grisham was twelve, his family settled in Southaven, Mississippi. He earned a B.S. at Mississippi State University and went on to earn his law degree at the University of Mississippi. Shortly after graduating from law school, he and his wife, Renée, returned to Southaven where Grisham set up a small practice as a defense attorney. In the 1980s he was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, but he quit before finishing his second term, frustrated by his inability to enact changes in the state's education budget. Grisham left his law practice in 1990 in order to pursue a full-time writing career.
Set in fictional Clanton, Mississippi, Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill (1989), centers around the trial of a black Vietnam veteran who murders two white men after they brutally rape his ten-year-old daughter. The novel relates attorney Jake Brigance's defense of the grieving father before an all-white jury as well as the numerous attempts made on Brigance's life by the Ku Klux Klan. The Firm, The Pelican Brief (1992), and The Client (1993) all feature unsuspecting protagonists who are suddenly thrust into dangerous, life-threatening situations. In The Firm Mitchell McDeere struggles against Mob hitmen who work for his corrupt associates. While he desperately searches for evidence of their criminal activities, he is simultaneously trying to avoid being killed or framed. The action of The Pelican Brief begins with the murders of two United States Supreme Court justices. Darby Shaw, a law student at Tulane University, attempts to explain the motives behind the two killings in a document that becomes known as "The Pelican Brief." When the criminals learn that Shaw has discovered the truth, they chase her across the eastern United States, making numerous attempts on her life. The hero of The Client is Mark Sway, an eleven-year-old who knows where a powerful Mob boss has hidden the body of a murdered United States senator. Mark hires defense attorney Reggie Love to assist him as he flees the law enforcement officials who want him to reveal his secret and the organized crime figures who want to silence him. Set in Mississippi, The Chamber (1994) concerns the defense of a Ku Klux Klan member in his late sixties. Convicted in his third trial of a 1967 fire-bombing of a Jewish civil-rights lawyer's office, the man is sentenced to die in the gas chamber. In his appeal he is represented by his estranged grandson, who becomes obsessed with his grandfather's case.
Upon its initial publication in 1989, A Time to Kill received very little critical attention, but the overwhelming success of The Firm sparked interest in Grisham's first novel, which was then praised by critics as forceful, dramatic, and thought-provoking. Commentators cited Grisham's legal expertise as well as his authentic portrayal of customs and values in the American South as some of the strengths of A Time to Kill. While The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client have been faulted for implausible storylines, undeveloped characters, and simplistic, stilted dialogue, all three novels have been best-sellers, a phenomenon many critics attribute to Grisham's ability to captivate readers with his blend of intriguing legal predicaments, high tension, and unexpected plot twists. In a review of The Client, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt observed: "Mr. Grisham enraptures us with a story that has hardly any point…. What's most irritating is how deeply the plot hooks us." Some critics have argued that Grisham displays considerable talent as a writer, maintaining that his characterizations are accurate and well-developed and his dialogue arresting and realistic. Frank J. Prial, in a review of The Pelican Brief, asserted: "[Grisham] has an ear for dialogue and is a skillful craftsman. Like a composer, he brings all his themes together at the crucial moment for a gripping, and logical, finale." Like A Time to Kill, The Chamber has been praised for its compelling plot, use of complex legal details, and commentary on such controversial issues as racism and vigilantism.