Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738

When The Last Juror was published in January 2004, the book was released to mixed reviews. Critics expecting a "typical" Grisham legal thriller usually gave the book a poor review. But critics open to reading the book as a novel with no expectations for certain genre conventions were more positive.

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Publishers Weekly gives the book a starred review, indicating the book is considered of "out-standing" quality. The anonymous reviewer says:

Grisham has spent the last few years stretching his creative muscles through a number of genres: his usual legal thrillers (The Summons, The King of Torts, etc.), a literary novel (The Painted House [sic]), a Christmas book (Skipping Christmas) and a high school football elegy (Bleachers). This experimentation seems to have imbued his writing with a new strength, giving exuberant life to this compassionate, compulsively readable story of a young man's growth from callowness to something approaching wisdom.

The review concludes with high praise indeed:

Grisham tells the sad, heroic, moving stories of the eccentric inhabitants of Clanton, a small town balanced between the pleasures and perils of the old and the new South. The novel is heartfelt, wise, suspenseful and funny, one of the best Grishams ever.

Other critics, such as Ron Berthel of the Associated Press, were not as generous in their praise, but still liked the book. He notes that the book

is … a homey tale about a small-town newspaper and its young master growing up together, and a social observation of the effects that rapidly changing times—school desegregation, the Vietnam War, illegal drug use and the demise of small businesses at the hands of national "big box" retailers—have on life in a slow-paced Southern town.

And while "suspense and thrills aren't the main focus of this novel, Grisham knows how to keep the pages turning."

Matt Grady of America's Intelligence Wire would agree. He writes that Willie's first person narrative provides "a fresh, vibrant touch to the story." Grady also appreciates "the comical supporting characters including crooked lawyers and nosy reporters." Grady writes that "these elements combined with foreboding suspense and action make The Last Juror a smooth, entertaining read."

Dierdre Donohue, writing for USA Today, argues that there are two Grishams: one who writes "jet-fueled legal thrillers" and another who writes more personal novels about things like "religious faith and its transformative power." In The Last Juror there is both. Like the reviewer from Publisher's Weekly, Donohue rates this book highly: "The novel will satisfy those with an appetite for legal thrillers and those who believe Grisham possesses more talent than those breathless page-turners sometimes reveal. It ranks among his best-written and most atmospheric novels."

Donohue does note one flaw in the novel. "Although the novel's characters are memorable, Grisham uses a heavy trowel to shape them." She remarks that characters in the book are either saints, like Miss Callie, or devils, like the Padgitts.

Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe sees the book as flawed, but showing an improvement in Grisham's skill as a novelist. He writes that Grisham is expanding as a writer, and suggests Grisham's "ambitions and skills aren't lined up yet, but the ambition is more focused, and the skill is coming along."

Some critics were disappointed in the book. Jennifer Reese at Entertainment Weekly writes that Grisham's attempt to combine a character-driven novel and a legal thriller is not altogether successful. She calls the book a "salty snack, a tasty, nonnutritious, and ultimately unsatisfying page-turner …".

New Statesman writer Mark Bearn is even more scathing in his review. He writes, "Sadly, it is a book without plot, purpose or even any pleasure for the reader, simply page after page of deep-fried Southern cliche." He goes on to attack Grisham's writing as a whole by saying that "Despite their clumsy plots, paper-thin characters and shocking grammar," Grisham's earlier books were "readable" and "surprisingly effective morality tales." However, he adds, as time goes on, Grisham has become more ambitious as a writer and "less accomplished." Bearn finds Grisham's characterizations in the novel lacking. He finds Miss Callie "absurdly angelic" and says that Grisham treats readers to "a parade of formulaic characters." He finishes his review of the novel with this analysis:

A plot, or a hard look at the racial divisions that make Mississippi the poorest and most unequal state in America, might have compensated for Grisham's lack of literary skill. Without either of these we are left with nothing.

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