John Grisham Grisham, John - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Grisham 1955(?)–

American novelist.

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Time to Kill (novel) 1989
The Firm (novel) 1991
The Pelican Brief (novel) 1992
The Client (novel) 1993
The Chamber (novel) 1994

David Keymer (review date 15 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

West Coast Review of Books (review date February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Bill Brashler (review date 24 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter S. Prescott (review date 25 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Charles Champlin (review date 10 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Pagan Kennedy (review date July-August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

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Jeffrey Toobin (review date 23 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank J. Prial (review date 15 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Aric Press (review date 16 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Karen Stabiner (review date 5 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Colbert (review date 28 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence J. Goodrich (review date 5 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 5 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.,...

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Tom Nolan (review date 12 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Mathews (essay date 15 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ruth Coughlin (review date 25 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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John Mortimer (review date 12 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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