SOURCE: A review of A Time to Kill, in Library Journal, Vol. 114, No. 11, June 15, 1989, p. 80.
[The following is Keymer's positive review of A Time to Kill.]
In this lively novel [A Time to Kill], Grisham explores the uneasy relationship of blacks and whites in the rural South. His treatment is balanced and humane, if not particularly profound, slighting neither blacks nor whites. Life becomes complicated in the backwoods town of Clanton, Mississippi, when a black worker is brought to trial for the murder of the two whites who raped and tortured his young daughter. Everyone gets involved, from Klan to NAACP. Grisham's pleasure in relating the byzantine complexities of Clanton politics is contagious, and he tells a good story. There are touches of humor in the dialogue; the characters are salty and down-to-earth. An enjoyable book, which displays a respect for Mississippi ways and for the contrary people who live there.
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...
(This entire section contains 792 words.)
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.
SOURCE: A review of The Firm, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 2, February, 1991, p. 17.
[In the following review, the critic provides a laudatory assessment of The Firm.]
How many different ways are there to use trite phrases like "gripping," "compelling," and all those other overused adjectives that fit this wonderful novel of suspense to a tee? Quite simply put, [The Firm] is one of the best thrillers to come along in a while and, to use a couple more cliches, it's a "real page-turner," a "roller-coaster ride" of adventure. I wince to say it, but "you won't be able to put it down." If this review is cliche-ridden, rest assured the novel is not.
Mitch McDeere, a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, is being recruited by several top firms. But none of the firms can compete with Bendini, Lambert & Locke, a Memphis-based firm that offers him a salary, a car and a lifestyle so incredible that Mitch jumps at the chance to work a 70-hour, six-day week in order to become a millionaire by age 40.
But all is not right at the firm which appears to be staffed by "Stepford Attorneys": No one ever leaves it, no one ever complains, and the longer the associates remain, the more they allow the firm to run their lives—even regarding such personal decisions as when to have children and where to live. Mitch is too busy to notice these irregularities until an FBI agent points out that there have been a number of "accidental" deaths in the firm, and he reveals the truth about it. Mitch must now choose whether to co-operate with the feds and lose everything he's worked for, or continue with a crooked firm, risking a prison sentence if the truth is exposed. Truly a man in the middle, he is forced to start running—from the firm, the FBI, and even from his own family.
The author is a criminal defense attorney by profession; but first and foremost, he is a wonderful storyteller. His characters are alive, and his plot unfolds with a chilling pace that does not let up for an instant.
There's no new way of expressing admiration for such a tight thriller without stooping to cliches. Just read it. It's damned good.
A Time to Kill (novel) 1989The Firm (novel) 1991The Pelican Brief (novel) 1992The Client (novel) 1993The Chamber (novel) 1994
SOURCE: "Corporate Lawyers Who Lead Wild Lives," in Chicago Tribune—Books, February 24, 1991, p. 6.
[Brashler is an American novelist, short story writer, biographer, and critic. In the following review, he praises Grisham's characterizations and literary strategy in The Firm.]
Love a lawyer—no easy task in these litigious times—and you are usually enamored of a trial lawyer. At least in literature, where the zealous defender or prosecutor pursues the law in its purest form and shines on the page. Corporate and tax attorneys, those steel-lapeled "of counsels," usually languish in mahogany suites, out of metaphor's eye.
But that was before L.A. Law and other entertainments came along and somehow injected intrigue and spice into the lives of those on retainer. They do have blood as well as billable hours, as it turns out.
John Grisham's The Firm takes things a step further. It gives us Bendini, Lambert & Locke, a smug, rich Memphis, Tenn., tax firm so corrupt it makes the sleaziest ambulance chaser look honorable.
Bigwigs from BL&L appear on page one of this adept first novel as they try to recruit young Mitch McDeere, one of Harvard Law School's brightest. "It's an impressive firm, Mitch," says senior partner Oliver Lambert. "We're small and we take care of each other."
Do they ever. Their offer is $80,000 plus bonuses, a low-interest mortgage loan and a leased BMW. In return, McDeere simply has to work his tail off—70-hour weeks are expected—and toe the firm's line. By 45, he'll be a multimillionaire.
Of course, all this is too good to be true. Then again, so is Mitch McDeere. Brilliant, tireless, witty and married to a looker, he also wows the firm's most insufferable partners and bills great heaps of hours.
Imagine McDeere's surprise when he is approached by an FBI agent who tells him that his new firm is rotten to its wingtips and that the recent vacation deaths of two partners were not accidental. The firm, McDeere later learns, is an active front for a Chicago—where else?—crime family.
Grisham is a criminal defense attorney in Mississippi—how does he know so much about the corporate law types?—and The Firm works on just about every level. Though it asks the reader to chew large chunks of disbelief in the name of collusion, conspiracy and ruthlessness, it makes up for that with savvy, crisp portraits of lawyers on the make. And McDeere is a likeable straight arrow who—even though he joined this crew in the first place—throws just enough back at his bosses to put us on his side.
What is impressive about the narrative is Grisham's ability to show us the schemes of the bad guys along with those of the innocents. This is not a mystery, but a well-paced and, at times, harrowing thriller. We are a small half-step ahead of McDeere and wife, but at the mercy of the villains and the train of events.
Grisham's villains shine, mainly because he has given them dimension and intelligence. The FBI's hat is not totally white; and even McDeere has his own agenda when things get tight.
There are glitches, however. We are to believe that the firm's lethal agents see and hear McDeere wherever he goes, yet he somehow conveniently manages to meet secretly with his few confederates and plan his survival. There is also a delicious diet of coincidence that books like this depend on.
But none of the nits, and the absence of even a grain or two of humor, keeps The Firm from reading like a whirl-wind. Grisham knows his lawyers and hands them their just desserts. And how often does that happen?
SOURCE: "Murky Maneuvers in a Lethal Law Firm," in Newsweek, Vol. CXVII, No. 8, February 25, 1991, p. 63.
[Prescott is an American editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review of The Firm, he lauds Grisham's ability to write a compelling, though frequently improbable, plot.]
What Robin Cook did for hospitals, John Grisham does for a law firm in his highly entertaining thriller, The Firm. What evil lurks within the file drawers of Bendini, Lambert & Locke, a private tax outfit in Memphis? You'd think a bright fellow like Mitchell McDeere, third in his Harvard Law class, might be suspicious when the partners offer him $80,000 to start, plus bonuses, a BMW, low mortgage, two country clubs and his school debts paid off. He'll work 100 hours a week at first, they tell him, but he'll be a partner and a millionaire in 10 years—and as for job security, nobody ever leaves the firm. No, but five associates have met odd deaths in the past 15 years. Mitch, numbed by greed—so much money in Memphis!—signs on.
No sooner is he in place than the FBI rousts him out. They tell Mitch the firm is owned by the Chicago mob, which uses it to set up dummy corporations on Grand Cayman that launder countless millions. They offer him a choice: cooperate with the FBI and risk being murdered by his new colleagues, or refuse—and be sent to prison when the FBI moves in.
Improbabilities abound, the characters are ciphers—and yet the story has significant strengths. It contains useful information on such matters as how to send the massed troops of justice in the wrong direction, and how to move dirty money among numbered accounts. It also offers an irresistible plot. A plot that seizes a reader on the opening page and propels him through 400 more is much rarer in commercial fiction than is generally supposed. Like all such stories, it works best in its first half, when we're wondering how Mitch will be tripped up. Toward the end, the story gets physical, which requires another narrative skill. Grisham excels here, too.
Hubbard, Kim, and Hutchings, David. "Tales Out of Court." People Weekly 37, No. 10 (16 March 1992): 43-4.
Traces Grisham's life and career, providing commentary by Grisham on his novels.
French, Edward. Review of The Client, by John Grisham. Books Magazine 7, No. 3 (May-June 1993): 21-2.
Positive review of The Client. French comments: "Another fascinating story from John Grisham, who scores a bull's-eye with every book."
Goodman, Walter. "Getting to Know Grandpa under Penalty of Death." The New York Times (29 July 1994): B10.
Offers a mixed assessment of The Chamber.
Petersen, Clarence. Review of A Time to Kill, by John Grisham. Chicago Tribune—Books (8 September 1991): 10.
Favorable assessment of A Time to Kill, which, Petersen asserts, "invites comparison to [Harper Lee's] To Kill a Mockingbird in its authenticity of setting and characterization."
Skow, John. "Legal Eagle." Time 139, No. 10 (9 March 1992): 70.
Review of The Pelican Brief. Skow writes that the plot of The Pelican Brief is a near duplicate of that of The Firm.
――――――. "A Time to Kill?" Time 143, No. 25 (20 June 1994): 67.
Praises Grisham's focus on capital punishment in The Chamber and discusses the book's relationship to Grisham's other works.
Stabiner, Karen. Review of The Client, by John Grisham. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (4 April 1993): 6.
Faults Grisham for an undeveloped plot in The Client.
SOURCE: A review of The Firm, in Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1991, p. 7.
[A former correspondent for both Time and Life magazines, Champlin is a well-known American journalist and critic. In the following review of The Firm, he asserts: "The character penetration is not deep, but the accelerating tempo of the paranoia-driven events is wonderful."]
Consider the premise of The Firm, a second novel by John Grisham, who is a criminal defense attorney practicing in Mississippi and living near William Faulkner's home town of Oxford.
A brand-new Harvard Law graduate, who finished high in his class, owes $23,000 in school loans but has a choice of job offers, each more lucrative than the other. Wall Street beckons, but so does a small, obscure firm in Memphis that promises a fat salary, a BMW, a low-cost loan to buy a house and the prospect of retirement at 50 as a millionaire.
Irresistible, despite a curious aura of secrecy and enforced conformity about the place. Mitch McDeere takes the job and has hardly scrawled his first brief when an FBI agent (a college classmate) sidles up, warns him that the firm is bad news and urges McDeere to become an informant. By a set of coincidences, no one has quit the firm alive, although there are a few cheerful retirees. The last informants, McDeere finds, died in a mysterious boating accident.
The firm, McDeere also learns to his horror, was founded and is owned and run by a crime family out of Chicago, the more or less legitimate tax work a cover for a huge volume of money-laundering involving the company jet, which carries vast bundles of cash to cooperative banks in the Caribbean to await repatriation.
Our boy is caught in a tightening vice between the FBI, extorting him to play on threat of prison when (not if) the firm goes down, and his murderous and suspicious partners with a frightening, efficient security system Capone would have envied.
The character penetration is not deep, but the accelerating tempo of paranoia-driven events is wonderful: clandestine meetings, predawn prowlings, a dangerous imposture and a final cat-and-mouse pursuit through the South to a down-market stretch of Florida coast, leading to a fine ironic finish.
SOURCE: A review of The Firm, in VLS, No. 97, July-August, 1991, p. 7.
[In the following review of The Firm, Kennedy faults Grisham's excessive reliance on popular culture, his weak characterizations, and offensive stereotypes.]
Sit back, relax, and pretend it's the 1980s. Of course, you're male and fresh out of Harvard. Law, stunningly handsome, and married to a gal with great legs who dreams of "furniture, and wallpaper, and perhaps a pool before too long. And babies." So when a law firm in Memphis offers you—even before you've passed the bar—a BMW, a house, and 80 grand a year, you don't suspect a thing. Hey, it's an offer you can't refuse, right?
The Firm is a thriller in which author John Grisham concentrates less on his characters than on their conspicuous consumption—BMWs, silk ties, BMWs, solid-cherry desks and leather wing chairs, BMWs, restaurants in "chic [i.e., white] East Memphis," and condos under the tax-sheltering skies of the Cayman Islands. The book is your standard late '80s/early '90s Power Novel: Like Bright Lights, Big City, Bonfire of the Vanities, and American Psycho, it simultaneously worships and demonizes money. But while those books make some stab at serious themes (though Psycho just stabs for the hell of it), The Firm is free of the literary oat bran of social commentary; instead it serves up a delicious pâté of designer labels, schlocky suspense, and six-figure salaries.
Grisham particularly likes to linger over large sums of money: "The average for associates was one-seventy-five per hour. For partners, three hundred. Milligan got four hundred an hour from a couple of his clients, and Nathan Locke once got five hundred an hour for some tax work that involved swapping assets in several foreign countries. Five hundred bucks an hour!"
Typically, Grisham chooses the trendiest bad guys of the moment: the Mob. When our hero, Mitch McDeere, signs on with the high-paying firm, he unknowingly joins a front for a Mafia family. Though the thugs run a sophisticated money-laundering operation, it seems they could benefit from some laundering of the old-fashioned soap-and-water variety—or at least better taste in clothes. Grisham condemns his Mafia guys with all the cruelty of the Glamour Fashion Dos and Don'ts page: "His wrinkled shirt was mercifully unbuttoned at the collar, allowing his bulging neck to sag unrestricted. A thick polyester tie hung on the coatrack with a badly worn blazer."
It takes impeccably dressed Mitch, who we're told is a genius, several chapters to figure out the firm's nasty secret. The reader is way ahead of him. In fact, astute readers may realize the Mafia's involved before opening the book. The cover shows a little business-suited guy hanging from puppet strings as he tries to scrabble up a corporate-style marble wall—a not-so-subtle reference to the puppet-string logo of The Godfather movies.
Before long, Mitch learns that the house and the BMW have strings attached, too: They're bugged. But even unmonitored, Mitch and Abby are a Stepford couple:
"What would you like to talk about?" she asked.
"I thought we were going to wait a few years."
"We are. But I think we should practice diligently until then."
Pretty soon, thank God, there's no time for repartee. Mitch is approached by the FBI, which wants him to help nail his employers; meanwhile the Mob suspects something's up. Caught between two ruthless organizations, Mitch takes the '80s way out: He plots an escape, outwits both the Feds and the Mob, and winds up with millions.
The plot moves so quickly, like a fine-tuned BMW, you almost don't notice the bumps in the road, namely, the author's racism. I had steeled myself for babes in high heels, but not for shuffling waiters named Roosevelt or this scene, where Grisham gives his theory about why Kentucky Fried tastes so bad on the Cayman Islands: "Colonel Sanders had the damnedest time teaching the island girls, though black or close to it, how to fry chicken. It was foreign to them." Gee, I guess only Southern blacks have that chicken-frying gene.
But offensiveness aside, The Firm has all the makings of a good TV movie, though it lacks women wearing huge shoulder pads who slap one another and say, "You scheming bitch." Reading this book was much like living in the '80s—you're repulsed, mesmerized, and glad it's over.
SOURCE: "Still More Lawyer-Bashing from Novelist John Grisham," in Chicago Tribune—Books, February 23, 1992, p. 4.
[In the following review of The Pelican Brief, Toobin asserts that while Grisham's characters "lack humanity" and situations in the novel are implausible, his plots contain a "narrative drive that welcomes readers to suspend disbelief."]
John Grisham has done it again—for better or worse. Grisham's 1991 legal thriller The Firm tells the story of a young attorney lured by a high salary to a mysterious Memphis law firm where the new associates have a habit of dropping dead. After learning the dark secrets behind the firm's success, the hero worries less about blowing the whistle on his employers than about stealing their money. The Firm rang true with a public willing to believe everything awful about lawyers and took up seemingly permanent residence on the best-seller lists.
Grisham now seeks a bigger stage for his cynicism, turning his attention from a single corrupted-by-the-mob law firm to the White House and Supreme Court. The Pelican Brief begins late on an October night in the mid-1990s, when Justice Abe Rosenberg, the Supreme Court's 91-year-old liberal firebrand, is murdered in his home in Washington. Hours later, Justice Glenn Jensen, a dimwitted conservative, is garrotted in a gay porno theater. Whodunit?
Actually, that's not much of a mystery. The investigators—and the readers—learn quickly that a slinky terrorist-for-hire pocketed a few million bucks for the hits. The real question is who paid for it and why.
The surviving justices, as well as the FBI, begin scouring the Supreme Court's docket for litigants with large grievances, but Darby Shaw, a second-year law student at Tulane who is also "beautiful and brilliant," writes up a novel hypothesis in a paper she calls the "Pelican Brief." When Shaw's law professor-boyfriend passes the brief to a friend at the FBI, the professor is promptly blown to smithereens by a bomb clearly meant for Shaw.
As the brief circulates in Washington, everyone who sees it finds a reason to cover it up—particularly a top White House aide so evil that he makes H. R. Haldeman look like Beaver Cleaver. Everyone, it appears, is out to get Shaw. She sighs to a friend, "What would you do if you knew you were supposed to be dead, and the people trying to kill you had assassinated two Supreme Court justices, and knocked off a simple law professor, and they have billions of dollars which they obviously don't mind using to kill with?"
What Darby does is change her hair color and sip fancy coffee at a variety of picturesque New Orleans locales—something that makes sense only if you view this novel as a screenplay-in-waiting.
Indeed, the whole of The Pelican Brief is about as believable as an episode of "Mr. Ed." The White House aide warns a colleague about repeating the errors of Watergate, yet he installs a taping system in the Oval office—with the '90s touch of video as well as audio. The FBI and CIA obstruct justice as casually as they order office supplies. And so on.
Yet the new novel shares with The Firm a narrative drive that welcomes readers to suspend disbelief. Grisham knows how to drop hints and red herrings with the best of them, and he writes good dialogue. Grisham does cheat a little when he lets virtually every character in the novel know what's in the darned brief before he finally clues in his readers, near the end of the book. Still, he does keep some suspense rolling along and delivers a punchy, if not exactly surprising, conclusion.
What is most troubling about The Pelican Brief—and The Firm, too—is the universal loathsomeness of the characters. Grisham's law is, the more powerful the figure, the more sinister. Readers who believe that mad billionaires control armies of private assassins and that presidents view murder as a tool to improve their polling numbers will find a kindred spirit in Grisham.
That simplistic approach underlies the contrast between Grisham and his predecessor in legal-literary superstardom, Scott Turow. Think of Raymond Horgan, the once idealistic district attorney in Turow's Presumed Innocent, who in the midst of a tough political campaign betrays his former protege, murder suspect Rusty Sabich.
Horgan is troubled, flawed, real. Turow, recognizes that lawyers don't lack altruism; rather, like everyone else, they just suppress it a lot of the time. Grisham's characters don't just lack altruism, they lack humanity.
And, in The Pelican Brief they engage in a conspiracy so vast, so secret, so complex, so malevolent that…. Oliver Stone, call your agent.
SOURCE: "Too Liberal to Live," in The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1992, p. 9.
[In the following review of The Pelican Brief, Prial declares: "Mr. Grisham has written a genuine page-turner. He has an ear for dialogue and is a skillful craftsman."]
John Grisham hates lawyers. Really hates them. His impressive 1991 best seller, The Firm, exposed an imaginary Memphis law firm owned by Chicago Mafiosi. His new thriller, The Pelican Brief, takes aim at powerful Washington lawyers who front for a homicidal oil billionaire.
In The Firm the slimy lawyers were the story; this time around, they are usually just offstage. In the end, though, when the good guys win, the dotty oil man, with his prehensile Howard Hughes toenails, skips to Egypt or some place like that. Mr. Grisham couldn't care less about him. It's the evil corporate lawyers he's after and, since it's his book, he gets them.
Rapacious lawyers cannot, alone, a thriller make—at least not for a reviewer who has spent a substantial part of his life covering them in courtrooms. They are too commonplace. No, you have to have a rattling good story, too, and that Mr. Grisham provides.
Two liberal Supreme Court justices have been assassinated. No one can come up with a motive. Darby Shaw, a young law student at Tulane University in New Orleans, has a theory: someone coming before the Court might want to give the conservative President an opportunity to replace the two liberals. Checking appeals pending in the Federal courts, she finds what she is looking for and produces a four-page memorandum. This is the pelican brief.
The investigation quickly involves the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the White House, where the dull-witted President is, in fact, happy with his unexpected Supreme Court nominations. "I want young conservative white men opposed to abortion, pornography, queers, gun control, racial quotas," he says. "I want judges who hate dope and criminals and are enthusiastic about the death penalty. Understand?"
Soon people who have seen the brief, or even know about it, start to die. It's Darby the killers want, but the first to go is her law school professor and lover, blown up in his Porsche by a bomb intended for her. Darby hops around the country, changing airplanes, clothes and hair colors and ducking into phone booths to give instructions to a Washington Post reporter who is trying to break the story.
There are improbabilities—like the elderly White House janitor who feeds state secrets (good ones) to a reporter, and Darby's pluck, which never flags. But this is an adventure story, isn't it?
The chase is fast-paced but not as fast as in The Firm. There Mr. Grisham dealt with two old-fashioned American preoccupations, paranoia and greed. This time around, he also tackles the court, the Government, the ecology and the newspaper business—among other things.
Just when the chase gets hot, we cut to the Oval Office, where the empty-headed Chief Executive is sinking putts on the carpet and being manipulated by his evil chief of staff, Fletcher Coal. Or to a lawyer's office or a hotel room or F.B.I. headquarters, where count on it, people are sitting around and talking, and—maddeningly—the action drags.
O.K., there are lapses. Even so, Mr. Grisham has written a genuine page-turner. He 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.
John Grisham probably has a long and successful writing career ahead—if he doesn't get preachy. It could be a problem; he's a lawyer, too. And you know how they do go on.
SOURCE: "A Breach of Contract," in Newsweek, Vol. CXIX, No. 11, March 16, 1992, p. 72.
[In the following review of The Pelican Brief, Press faults Grisham for failing to explain key occurrences within the plot.]
Thriller writers make a deal with their readers. In return for a willing suspension of disbelief, the author sets off on a merry, roller-coaster plot, dropping hints, feinting at shadows, setting off surprises, all with the promise of a reasonable explanation at the end. In his last book, The Firm, John Grisham upheld his end of the bargain, with a hugely successful tale of a young lawyer from Harvard who makes the mistake of joining a Memphis law firm secretly controlled by the Mafia. Comes now Grisham's new book, The Pelican Brief, another of the catch-me-if-you-can genre. This time, it's a brilliant and attractive female law student who's staying one step ahead of the FBI, the CIA and a politically well-connected tycoon who has his own stable of killers. (And there are some fiendish lawyers to hiss at, too!) Grisham keeps the pages turning but, in the end, badly breaches the thrillermeister-reader contract.
After a shadowy killer assassinates two Supreme Court justices, the nation is stumped for suspects and motive. Working in the nether reaches of the Tulane law library—far from the lecherous glances of male law students or the boozy reach of her law-professor lover—Darby Shaw solves the crime. She explains her theory in a memo that becomes known as the pelican brief; the title refers to the endangered species at the heart of the lawsuit that sets off the killings. She thinks it's all pretty farfetched (she's right, of course) but her mentor passes it on to high-placed friends in Washington and the next thing the reader hears is bombs going off and body parts crashing to the pavement.
The setup is swell, and the chase is daring, but there's no brain food here. Why would anyone, even the richest scoundrel in Louisiana, want to kill two justices of the Supreme Court four years before his case might, might, be heard? Why, indeed, when one is 91 and barely alive, and the other is described as erratic at best? Grisham doesn't tell except to lay the idea off on some legal wizard who doesn't shed a clue either. Who leaked Darby's brief to the bad guys? Nobody knows and nobody much cares including the FBI director, even though the tip led to the death of the FBI's counsel. What's in the brief? Hard to say, since we never get to read the whole thing. The one chapter seemingly devoted to it is nifty but it doesn't match the early descriptions. And, by the way, how did Darby crack the case? As she says when she emerges from the law library, she didn't. All she had was a surmise, suggesting perhaps that where legal research fears to tread, legal fiction rushes in. Caveat emptor.
SOURCE: A review of The Pelican Brief, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 5, 1992, p. 6.
[In the following review of The Pelican Brief, Stabiner notes: "What makes this Hollywood fodder is Grisham's ability to mix and match the elements of commercial fiction. The symbiosis is almost irresistible."]
Some books are born to movie deals, others have movie deals thrust upon them. [The Pelican Brief] bears the box-office chromosome. Grisham has fashioned a sexy (if oddly sexless) thriller about a gorgeous young law student who stumbles upon the identity of the man who hired an assassin to snuff out two Supreme Court justices. The ancient liberal justice Rosenberg and his conservative, closeted gay associate seem to have nothing in common, save that each man meets a gruesome death on the same evening. But dogged bibliophile Darby Shaw finds a connection that has eluded all of Washington—in part because she has a great mind, in part because the golf-playing President of the United States has good reason not to want anyone to solve the crime. What makes this Hollywood fodder is Grisham's ability to mix and match the elements of commercial fiction. The symbiosis is almost irresistible. Tom Clancy can write about political espionage, but Grisham does it with a woman-in-distress overlay. And what a woman. Darby Shaw is every boy's dream—red-haired and -toed, thanks to a lover with a pedicure fetish, tall (most of it great legs) and, in a nod to the demands of post-feminist America, brilliant, but still accessible. Even the predictable dips in the pace (How long is it going to take for the guys who can save her to figure this one out?) are fun.
SOURCE: "Grisham's Latest: Passing Judgment on The Client," in Chicago Tribune—Books, February 28, 1993, p. 7.
[In the following review, Colbert provides a negative assessment of The Client, characterizing Grisham's works as "bland and inoffensive,… the literary equivalent of pureed potatoes or Muzak."]
On a literary level, there is little to recommend John Grisham's new novel, The Client. The characters are wooden, and the plot is contrived. The pace is plodding and because the book never gathers any momentum, it seems painfully overlong.
It hardly seems worth the bother to read such a book—much less review it—but as the jacket of The Client proudly states, Grisham has written "three consecutive number-one bestsellers"—A Time To Kill, The Firm and The Pelican Brief—and "has become one of the most popular authors of our time." And that claim can be substantiated by a trip to any chain bookstore, where John Grisham posters and displays and whole racks of his books abound. That being the case, one has to wonder why such undistinguished work enjoys such popular success.
In The Client a black Lincoln appears in the woods where 11-year-old Mark Sway and his younger brother are playing. The driver has come to the woods to kill himself, but before he does, for reasons that are hard to fathom, he tells young Mark that he is a lawyer, that his client, Barry "The Blade" Muldanno, has killed a U.S. senator, and that The Blade has put the senator's body in concrete under his, the lawyer's, garage. This knowledge transferred, Mark escapes and the lawyer kills himself—which makes Mark the witness needed by Roy Foltrigg, the ambitious U.S. attorney who is prosecuting The Blade for the senator's murder.
Foltrigg "was the prosecutor, the people's lawyer, the government fighting crime and corruption. He was right, justice was on his side, and he had to be ready to attack evil at any moment…. He had pushed hard for a speedy trial, because he was right, and he would get a conviction. The United States of America would win!"
Well, maybe, maybe not. The outcome depends on whether Foltrigg can get Mark to divulge where The Blade hid the senator's body—a task made considerably more difficult when the boy hires a lawyer who is willing, for one dollar, to devote her entire practice to him.
And so it goes. Mark is threatened by the bad guys. His family's trailer home is burned. Held in detention, he may, after all, have to tell what he knows. But perhaps Mark can extricate himself. All he has to do is convince his lawyer to help him with his escape, scare off three Mafia leg-breakers, back down the bungling FBI and work a deal to go into the Witness Protection Program.
If all that sounds a touch improbable, even for a precocious 11 year old, it is. So the question remains, how does such a book appeal to millions of fans, as Grisham's previous novels have done and as this one seems likely to do.
Well, in our consumer-oriented society, as any advertising person will tell you, there are certain items—including quite a few books and movies—that sell not because they are distinguished in any way but because they are bland and inoffensive, in this case, the literary equivalent of pureed potatoes or Muzak. And what John Grisham has attained is the perfect pitch of Muzak.
That is not to denigrate Grisham's achievement, for a product such as his can be created only if one has a certain marketing acumen. But if it is sad that such flawless lack of distinction achieves such success, one still wonders whether that occurs because the consumer has an innate taste for blandness or because the market is so good at selling particular pieces of it.
SOURCE: "Topical Legal Thriller Spins an Intriguing but Improbable Tale," in The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 1993, p. 10.
[In the following review of The Client, Goodrich praises Grisham's treatment of the juvenile justice system and compelling plot, commenting: "If you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept an 11-year-old leading the adult world around by the nose for 422 pages, the rewards in The Client are worth it."]
John Grisham is on a roll: He's had three No. 1 bestsellers in the two years since The Firm was published. His latest legal thriller, The Client, contains all the ingredients of a fourth consecutive winner.
The plot revolves around an unlikely hero: Mark Sway, an 11-year-old Memphis, Tenn., boy who, with his younger brother, witnesses the suicide of New Orleans lawyer Jerome Clifford. Mark and his brother are living with their young mother in a trailer park after her divorce from a husband who abused them all. This and the social frictions at school between the trailer-park kids and those from "better" homes are supposed to have made Mark "street wise" and mature beyond his years.
When Mark tries to intervene to keep Clifford from killing himself, he is captured by the suicidal lawyer, who decides they'll go together. In the process, he lets Mark in on a big secret: He is a lawyer for Mafioso Barry Muldanno, the murderer of a United States senator from Louisiana. Clifford tells Mark the FBI hasn't been able to locate the body, which Muldanno, in an unguarded moment, has let slip is currently located under the lawyer's garage floor.
Mark escapes from Clifford just before the suicide, which leaves him the only person beside Muldanno who knows the secret that can sew up the case. Soon the Memphis authorities, the US attorney in New Orleans, and the mob figure out that Mark probably knows something. The authorities want him to tell what he knows, but Mark has seen too many crime movies, and he's convinced that he's dead if he does.
With his brother lying in the hospital with traumatic stress syndrome from witnessing the suicide, and his mother spending every minute at the bedside, Mark decides he needs a lawyer. Fortunately for him, he stumbles on Reggie Love, a self-made woman with a sad past who just happens to specialize in child-abuse and neglect cases. Together she and Mark modestly set out to outwit the system, the cops, and the mob.
The problem with this kind of thriller is the frequent implausibility of the plot. But if you can accept the premise of The Client, especially Mark's reasons for refusing to talk and a lawyer who takes him seriously, you're in for a great read.
The novel throws a spotlight on the treatment of juveniles by a system that, in trying to assist them often does more harm than good. The characters live in a messy world featuring the usual mobsters with no respect for life; sleazy prosecutors and hangers-on who see their jobs as mere stepping-stones to higher office; jurisdictional spats between federal and state authorities; and a veteran police reporter whose articles endanger Mark and land the reporter in jail for contempt of court.
But even if the good guys aren't always all that good, most of them are trying to do the right thing. This is not a novel of hopelessness: While there are ambiguities in the ending, there are many small acts of goodness along the way. A hero who emerges in the latter part of the book is Harry Roosevelt, a black juvenile-court judge who could have gone on to a more lofty position but declined to, and who really does try to find a solution that will place Mark and his family in the least danger.
If you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept an 11-year-old leading the adult world around by the nose for 422 pages, the rewards in The Client are worth it. Take it along with you to the beach this summer.
SOURCE: "How Do You Fight the Mob? Get a Lawyer," The New York Times, March 5, 1993, p. C29.
[Lehmann-Haupt is a prominent American critic. In the following review, he faults Grisham for frustrating readers with likeable characters and an undeveloped, implausible, but gripping plot, advising the reader to "settle into The Client for the captivating read it promises. Just don't look for any surprises. What you expect is more than what you get."]
The opening of John Grisham's latest legal thriller, The Client, is irresistible. Eleven-year-old Mark Sway is leading his 8-year-old brother, Ricky, into the woods near their trailer-park home in Memphis, Tenn., to give him his first cigarette. While the boys are lighting up behind some bushes, a long, black, shiny Lincoln comes rolling up a dirt road close by and pulls to a stop. A chubby man in a black suit climbs out, removes a water hose from the trunk, attaches one end to the exhaust pipe, slides the other end through the partly open left rear window, climbs back into the car and starts the engine.
Little Ricky wants to run home, but Mark, being older and more streetwise, knows what he must do. He crawls to the rear of the car, removes the hose from the exhaust and sneaks back to the bushes. After a few minutes, the man climbs out again, weeping and mumbling and holding a bottle of whisky, reattaches the hose and climbs back into the car. Ricky begins to cry and to plead with his brother to take him home, but Mark pulls the hose loose again. This bizarre ritual continues until the man catches Mark and drags him into the car to die beside him.
Inside, the man threatens Mark with a gun and drunkenly explains why he's committing suicide. He's a lawyer who does work for the mob, and one of his clients, Barry (the Blade) Muldanno, has murdered a United States Senator. Nobody can find the body to use as evidence, but the suicidal lawyer has just learned that Barry hid it under the floor of the lawyer's garage. Besides Barry the Blade, he's the only one who knows, so his life is worthless.
While the lawyer is telling Mark all this and getting steadily drunker, Ricky removes the hose. Mark then escapes from the car and hides in the bushes again. The lawyer climbs out of the car once more, sees the detached hose and shoots himself in the head. The boys run home. Ricky goes into traumatic shock and has to be hospitalized. Both the police and Barry the Blade begin to suspect what the lawyer told Mark just before he died. They begin to press the boy to tell.
But what is most astonishing about this opening, which takes all of 20 pages, is how little Mr. Grisham does with it in the next 400 pages. The Client brings new force to the word anticlimax. It is as if at the outset the narrator had announced that he was about to conduct us on a journey across a desert with a cactus and a rock in it to a mountain range beyond, and that several surprises were in store. The surprises turn out to be that the cactus is a cactus, the rock is a rock and the mountain range is a mountain range. Once again, as he did in The Firm, Mr. Grisham enraptures us with a story that has hardly any point.
What's most irritating is how deeply the plot hooks us. Mark Sway is "a tough little kid, raised on the streets and wise beyond his years," as another character gratuitously informs us. Instead of letting himself be pushed around, Mark goes out and hires himself a lawyer, a woman who calls herself Reggie Love, and he tells her what he's feeling:
"I'm really sick of this. Just sick of it. All my buddies are in school today, having a good time, being normal, fighting with girls during recess, playing jokes on the teachers, you know, the usual stuff. And look at me. Running around town with my lawyer, reading about my adventures in the newspapers, looking at my face on the front page, hiding from reporters, dodging killers with switch-blades. It's like something out of a movie. A bad movie. I'm just sick of it. I don't know if I can take anymore. It's just too much."
Reggie Love is feisty too, a former battered wife who has rebuilt her life and now looks out for abused children. In the novel's only engaging scenes, she outsmarts the various prosecutors and F.B.I. men who want her client to cease obstructing justice.
But instead of developing his plot, Mr. Grisham simply strangles it, gesturing hysterically all the while at the cactus and the rock as if somebody were hiding behind them. The reader keeps wondering why clever little Mark doesn't send some sort of message to Barry the Blade:
"I'm not telling where the corpse is, but if anything happens to me or my family, a dozen lawyers around the country will reveal the contents of a dozen safety-deposit boxes I've told them to open in the event of my demise."
This would be as plausible as what actually happens in the story.
A third of the way into the plot, Mark recalls how he once attacked his father for abusing his mother. "When he came back to the trailer, the door was of course open, and I was waiting. I had pulled a kitchen chair beside the door, and I damned near took his head off with the baseball bat. A perfect shot to his nose. I was crying and scared to death, but I'll always remember the sound of the bat crunching his face."
You think this brutal recounting has to be a setup for some climactic scene to come. But guess again! It's just one in a whole arsenal of Chekhovian pistols on the mantelpiece that never do get fired.
So settle into The Client for the captivating read it promises. Just don't look for any surprises. What you expect is more than what you get.
SOURCE: "The Grisham Formula Revisited," in The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 1993, p. A6.
[In the following review, Nolan finds the plot of The Client implausible and the characters unappealing.]
John Grisham established a formula for generating suspense in his first runaway bestseller, The Firm: An innocent citizen is caught between the opposing and uncompromising forces of organized crime and federal law enforcement. The protagonist defies both camps to fashion a unique way out of the dilemma.
Mr. Grisham hews to the formula in his new novel, The Client. Here the innocent confronted with unappealing options is Mark Sway, an 11-year-old Memphis boy, who is present when mob lawyer Jerome Clifford commits suicide.
Clifford's hottest client, a New Orleans hood known as Barry "The Blade" Muldanno, has been indicted for the murder of a senator, although the apparent victim's body has not yet been found. Clifford knows the location of the corpse and reveals that information to young Sway before killing himself. Local and federal law enforcement officials want Sway to tell what he knows, but the mobster's minions warn him not to.
Afraid to talk lest he jeopardize the lives of his family and himself, Sway all on his own gets himself an attorney, retaining for the sum of $1 the services of 52-year-old Reggie Love, a shrewd and capable advocate specializing in protecting children's rights.
Love has her hands full looking out for this urchin. Among those arrayed against Sway are a sanctimonious, publicity-hungry U.S. attorney and a gaggle of determined FBI agents. The tough fourth-year lawyer soon has them all tied in knots, though, including the FBI—"the Fibbies," as the gangsters call them, or "those clowns," in the words of Mark Sway.
A great deal of disbelief must be suspended in order for this plot to unfold. Does it make any sort of sense for the mobsters to "warn" this boy to keep quiet? Wouldn't they prefer to eliminate the potential witness outright? Too much heat would be generated were they to commit such an outrageous crime, one hood says. More heat than for the murder of a senator?
And how does keeping silent protect Sway at all? Surely telling what he knows is Sway's only way to safety. Why would the bad guys come after him once the secret was out? And if the villainous Muldanno can elude FBI surveillance in order to hire people to harass and threaten the child-witness and his lawyer, couldn't he just as easily persuade some cronies to move the corpse he's so worried will be found?
Eventually Muldanno does just that, but only in order to set up a contrived slam-dunk sequence in which Sway and Love outwit a bunch even clumsier than The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
Just as aggravating as these implausibilities is the personality of the book's "hero," a tot who is alternately smug, patronizing and whiny—probably the most obnoxious child in American fiction since the little terror in O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief." By midpoint of The Client, this reader found himself rooting for "those clowns."
SOURCE: "Book 'Em," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXI, No. 11, March 15, 1993, pp. 79-81.
[In the following excerpt from an essay that includes commentary by Grisham, Mathews surveys Grisham's career through The Client and discusses critical response to the author's works.]
Grisham is a straight arrow making his way along a very crooked path—a world of sleazy lawyers, fathead politicians and hot-dog G-men where something always stinks just below the surface of wealth and respectability. Grisham's law is as simple as Aesop and as old as Scheherazade: bore 'em and you die. In The Client his hero is Mark Sway, an 11-year-old who tries to stop a suicide only to learn a mob secret that could cost him his life. To save himself from the bad guys—and the good guys—Sway pays $1, all he has, to hire Reggie Love, 52, a street lawyer with a divorcée's past and a grandmother's soul. Dodging Mafia hoods, crazy neighbors and the police, vowing to join a health club and get in better shape if she ever gets out alive, Reggie wonders whether she is "too old for this nonsense. The things lawyers do."
It was those things that drove Grisham right into fiction. "I'm pretty cynical about the legal profession," he says. "Thrilled to be out of it." A Time to Kill, his first and best novel, is also his most autobiographical. In Jake Brigance, you find the distillation of Grisham's own experience as a small-town ham-and-egger around the De Soto County courthouse. Before an all-white jury, Brigance defends a black Viet vet who took an M-16 and blew away two crackers who raped his 10-year-old daughter. Grisham took three years to write it, getting up at 5 a.m. and scribbling in a Sparco notebook, the kind court reporters use. "My motives were pure when I wrote A Time to Kill," he says. "It's better because you can almost smell the biscuits and the eggs and the grits and hear the chatter in the Coffee Shop; the people are better, the setting is better; you can feel the sweat sticking to their shirts in the July heat around the courthouse."
But the book didn't sell, so Grisham wrote his second novel, The Firm, as "a naked stab at commercial fiction." He tells the story of Mitchell Y. McDeere, Harvard Law, seduced by an $80,000 starting salary and a black BMW into joining a top-drawer law firm that turns out to be a money laundry for the mob. Into this tale Grisham poured his own contempt for corporate lawyers in $1,200 suits who pay for their $245 Cole Haan loafers and solid-cherry desks by billing $300 an hour for 30-hour days. He wrote The Pelican Brief, partly to convince [his wife,] Renée, his most important critic, that he could invent a strong woman. When the world's deadliest terrorist bumps off two Supreme Court justices, it is left to Darby Shaw, a Tulane law student, to figure out a plot the FBI can't—and the White House won't—unravel. It's the quintessential Grisham formula: "You take some horrible, mean, vicious, nasty conspiracy over here," he says. "You put a very sympathetic hero or heroine in the middle of it, you reach a point where their lives are at stake—and you get them out of it."
Not exactly Crime and Punishment? Grisham pleads nolo contendere. He puts on no literary airs. And yet … something seems to be eating him….
"These legal thrillers are driving me nuts," he says, a confession that should give his publishers heartburn. And Oxford bookseller Richard Howorth, whose grandfather once gave Faulkner a D in English, warns literary sourpusses not to do the same with Grisham. "Anyone who dismisses Grisham as 'commercial'," he says, "is making a big mistake."…
For a writer committed to thrills, Grisham practices only safe sex in his prose. "I cannot write about sex," he confesses. At one meeting with his editor in New York, the subject came up, and Renée said, "Johnny can't write about sex. He knows very little about it." Stifling a guffaw, David Gernert, his editor, said, "Don't even try."
So readers love his books, but are they art?
"Oh, there are a few literary snots in town who take shots at me," Grisham says mildly. Vernon Chadwick, professor of English at Ole Miss, argues that the market people in Hollywood and New York have seized on Grisham to water down American culture with the Southern-novel lite. But it isn't that easy. "Marketing can do many things, but it can't just buy a mass readership," says Gary Fisketjon, an editor at Knopf. "Readers detect crassness, the wrong touch." Like trout scrutinizing a badly tied fly, they may rise, but they won't take the offering.
Given the abundance of ego and the shortage of cash among so many "real" writers, the astonishing thing is how many around Oxford, where literary matters count, are willing to speak up in Grisham's defense. "I suppose I would have been more sullen if a bad book were taken as serious literary work," says Barry Hannah, whose own Bats Out of Hell, just out from Houghton Mifflin, is superb. "I liked the way John cleared the air." Donna Tartt, the author of The Secret History, who comes from nearby Grenada, observes that Dr. Johnson believed anyone who wrote for any reason but to make money was mad.
Let's not duck the literary issue: artists do something Grisham doesn't. The artist clearly enlightens where the commercial writer entertains. Consider the case of Larry Brown, another Oxford novelist, who tried to go commercial only to wind up an artist in spite of himself. Brown was a captain in the fire department. He once hoped to make a little money moonlighting in literature. Over eight years, he wrote five novels—the first, he says, was about "sex-starved women and man-eating bears in Yellow-stone," an idea that should have turned the trick, but didn't. He also wrote 100 short stories, only to throw them all out before publishing Facing the Music, the collection that established him as one of the South's authentic new voices. In the best writing, Brown discovered, character counts more than plot. That may not have helped his bank account much; but he doesn't hold it against Grisham. "Everybody's glad for what happened to John," he says. "He paid his dues. He works harder than I do."
An astute justification of Grisham comes from Sydney Pollack, who directed the movie of The Firm. "This is a very suspicious, cynical decade," says Pollack. "All bureaucratic authorities are suspect. Part of the reason the book is so successful is you have an Everyman taken advantage of by the authorities and by the experts who are supposed to defend you against the authorities. And he beats them both." [In February 1993] Grisham told a chamber of commerce group that A Time to Kill was his best novel and that he had been going downhill ever since. "Was this wise?" wondered Hannah, for whom Grisham had inscribed a book: "To one of my heroes." The truth is that in the cluttered office Grisham calls "mission control," the only room on his spread that he won't let Renée redecorate, the place where he pins the deadline on the wall once a year, shooing out his son, Ty, 9, and his daughter, Shea, 7, for the duration, Grisham is restless.
Someone once asked him to explain the significance of the fact that where Faulkner, a complicater, invented Yoknapatawpha, Grisham, a simplifier, dreamed up Ford County in A Time to Kill. ("Give me a break," he replied.) Once upon a time, his plan was to alternate one Ford County novel with every thriller. His Ford County ideas brought hems and haws from his agent and editor. The result was a three-book contract with Doubleday that holds him to legal thrillers. Now, he says, "what I'd really like to do is just go back to Ford County and never leave."
Of course, you can't go home again and bat out a Ford County novel in six months (The Pelican Brief took 100 days, The Client six months, and both show some damage). But Grisham says he's now so rich he could write a book every five years or maybe every 10 years. He doesn't intend to get into the ring with Count Tolstoy, as Hemingway would put it, or Faulkner. His idea is just to take more time, and in the tradition of Larry Brown, pay more attention to character. Whatever the case, he has what it takes to make the change. A while ago Bill Ballard sat in his law office near The Bookworm in Hernando, writing a review of The Client for the local library. Grisham, he wrote, now enjoys what Mark Twain called "the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces." And it's never been a good idea to bet against him.
SOURCE: A review of The Chamber, in The Detroit News, May 25, 1994, p. 3D.
[Coughlin is an American critic, who has served as a book editor and columnist for The Detroit News. In the following review, she declares The Chamber one of Grisham's best works to date, citing the novel's suspenseful plot and intriguing legal details as its strengths.]
Since the publication of The Firm in 1991, you may have noticed that many critics think it's great sport to take pot-shots at the astonishingly successful John Grisham. Looks to me like the prevailing sentiment is that making fun of him is, as the kids say, the cool thing to do.
You know: He's unspeakably rich and famous. You can't be in an airport anywhere without seeing at least five people reading any one of his four books—A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client. In bookstores all over America, it appears as though the John Grisham displays occupy half the floor and shelf space. And it's somewhat obvious to me that when some of his harshest critics also turn out to be writers themselves, it comes across as though maybe they're suffering from that dreaded, green-eyed monster disease also known as jealousy. Not a pretty sight.
So, for the record, let's make a stab at being fair. The Firm: Terrific. The Pelican Brief: Much less terrific. The Client: Godawful. (Sorry, John, I've not yet read your very first novel, A Time to Kill, although people say I should, and no doubt I will).
Grisham No. 5, simply put, is one of his best.
On the other hand, whether I say it's swell or not makes no difference whatsoever. It probably doesn't matter one whit, either, if I tell you about the plot or why I think The Chamber is one of Grisham's best—because the lawyer from Mississippi has reached such a phenomenal level of success, he could fill up a book's pages with absolute drivel and still it would sell a zillion copies.
I am, however, supposed to be a book critic, so let us proceed.
Sam Cayhall is a murderer, racist, anti-Semite, terrorist and Klansman. In 1967 he was accused of bombing the law offices of Jewish civil rights leader Marvin Kramer. Kramer's 5-year-old twin sons were killed, and later Kramer committed suicide. Cayhall's first trial ended in a hung jury; so did his second trial, six months later, and he walked away from both a free man.
A dozen years pass, and an ambitious district attorney re-opens the case, nailing Cayhall, as he should be nailed. He's sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where he will sit on Death Row for nearly 10 years. At 70, he's the oldest prisoner waiting to be led to the gas chamber and killed like an animal.
There's always a white knight, isn't there? Here, Grisham's savior is Adam Hall, 26, a young lawyer working for a huge firm in Chicago. He has been obsessed with the Cayhall case, and for good reason: Sam Cayhall is his grandfather, the father of Hall's own father, a tormented man named Eddie who ended up killing himself, the shame of his father's crimes overwhelming him.
Turns out the Cayhall lineage included generations of Kluckers. Turns out it's an evil, destructive family; that even though Sam Cayhall was just a gofer in the 1967 bombings, he partook in lynchings and once killed a black man who worked for him, a crime that went unpunished. Small wonder that Eddie Cayhall changed this illustrious group of rednecks' name to Hall.
When Adam Hall confronts the grandfather he's never met, he finds out that the execution is scheduled to take place in a month.
The race begins. And make no mistake: Grisham turns his plot into a heart-stopping, down-to-the-wire race, with the clock furiously ticking and the emotional terrain between grandfather and grandson moving like a seesaw.
In addition to suspense, he provides his readers an enormous amount of chilling and often gruesome information about what it's like to be on Death Row. And about how the complicated, last-ditch efforts a lawyer becomes involved in can be mind-numbing.
There's no love story and no sex in The Chamber—all to the good, since the romances in Grisham's previous novels have always seemed perfunctory to me.
Instead, there's just a good, old-fashioned, rip-snorting yarn, which is certainly all to the good, because it's what John Grisham does best.
SOURCE: "The Devil's Advocate," in The Sunday Times, London, June 12, 1994, p. 1.
[Mortimer is a noted English playwright, novelist, scriptwriter, lawyer, and critic. In the following review, he commends Grisham's storytelling ability and attention to detail in The Chamber.]
All over the world, and particularly in America, lawyers are giving up trying to woo juries and are concentrating their powers of persuasion on the bestseller lists and film rights. Turning author has numerous advantages for the courtroom advocate; nobody will land on death row, or even in prison, if you fail. There's no need to put on a suit, leave home, crawl to your senior partner or be polite to judges. If you succeed, you may become rich beyond the dreams of even the most successful criminal defender.
Furthermore, you have, at your fingertips, material which most novelists would give their word processors to possess. No need to research a story of sex and skulduggery in the steamy world of international bridge; no reason to trawl back through your past life for a tale of suburban adultery; you can be spared the pain of writing, in coruscating prose, a study of family rivalry in 16th-century Portugal. Even the most inexperienced and moderately successful trial lawyer will have seen human beings at crises of their lives, taken part in dramas of action and suspense and heard the astonishing confessions of murderers, con men, petty thieves and swindling tycoons. Small wonder that authors such as Scott Turow start well favoured in the bestselling handicap.
John Grisham, from Arkansas, who left his law firm and no doubt lives in considerable comfort with his family in Oxford, Mississippi, has certainly won the big-money stakes. Thirty million copies of his books are now in print in the English language and Hollywood has paid an "industry record" for his latest offering, The Chamber. Such facts would lead you to suspect that it couldn't be much good and I embarked on it with low expectations.
For the first dozen pages they were fulfilled. We have come to expect much of some mystery writers; they are often the best performers on the page we have around. Raymond Chandler wrote brilliant prose and Dashiell Hammett managed the sickening inevitability of classical drama. Now Ruth Rendell shows an unparalleled understanding of human evil, and P D James gives her characters hearts and souls. None of these talents is perceptible at the start of Grisham's novel. Reading it is like hearing a young and pedestrian barrister opening a case to a bored jury on a dull day in court. You have little idea of what the characters look like or how they feel. There is no sense of place, no wryly accurate Chandleresque descriptions, none of the shivers down the spine which Rendell produces so expertly. The jury might consider falling asleep or covertly filling in the crossword puzzle, but then they begin to listen and the colourless account of the facts suddenly grabs their attention.
After 50 pages I could hardly wait to turn the rest over; because what Grisham can do, and this accounts for the 30m books in print (many of them may even have been sold), is to tell us a story. And a story, despite the opinions of many highly respected authors to the contrary, is what readers have paid to read. Recently, a writer I know who does, in fact, tell stories said that writers today can't be expected to "do" plots. Plots, it seems, went out with gas-lamps and stone hot-water bottles. Mystery writers know quite well that this is not true, and that is why there are 30m copies of Grisham's books stacked up around the world.
His story is certainly compelling. A dreadful old Ku Klux Klansman, convicted, after two juries disagreed, of blowing up the office of a radical Jewish lawyer who defended blacks, and of killing his children, is on death row. He has run through nine years of the painfully complex and slow American appeals procedure. He has 16 days to go before entering the gas chamber. His grandson, a young liberal lawyer from a big Chicago firm, takes on the case. His aim is to find out the truth about his spiteful and racist grandfather and discover why his own father committed suicide. Like all good plots, from Hamlet downwards, it is exceedingly simple. Will he kill the king? Will they gas grandpa? Grisham may do without poetry, wit and style, and offer only the simplest characterisation. The young liberal lawyer may be colourless and the spooky old prisoner one-dimensional; but there is no doubt that this ex-lawyer knows how to tell a story.
It is more effective because the horrors of the death penalty are never overstated. All the lawyers hate it. The prison governor loathes it. The warders treat it with a rough and not unsympathetic humour. The only enthusiast is a sadistic deputy governor who is eagerly looking forward to his first execution. Those in favour of the death penalty are politicians with no experience of prisons or prisoners. Its ritual infliction, intolerably delayed by the American legal system, spreads corruption among all who have to take part in it.
In The Chamber, the conditions on death row (or, as it is euphemistically called, the maximum security unit) are relatively humane and the prison is in farming country. As in all such fiction, reality is sought by piling up minute, accurate detail; and the small facts, the hours of exercise, the dimensions of the cells, the prison menus (pretty good) and the strange, small kindnesses shown to the condemned man, are strangely fascinating. It's a piece of work that the authors on this year's Booker shortlist might examine in search of readability. The other 29,999,994 buyers will read this book just to find out how it ends.