The Runaway Jury, John Grisham

Island, 1996, 550 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22441-1

I remember reading John Grisham’s first four novel in rapid succession, then more or less abandoning him altogether. No specific reason: just a lack of I’ve-got-to-read-this oomph and a vague feeling that Grisham was repeating himself. (Best exemplified in the “Third Rock from the Sun” sitcom episode where the Solomon family tries reading books by “America’s number-one author” to fit in: “My John Grisham is about a young southern lawyer fighting the system” “So is mine!” “Mine too!”) Now the movie adaptation of The Runaway Jury comes along, giving me a splendid reason to check out Grisham’s work once again and see if I’ve missed anything.

Well, if this novel is any indication —I’ve got some catching up to do. Much as the film was a taut exercise in how to build a slick legal thriller, the book comes across as a fascinating equivalent. Less action and more details, certainly, but as much an example in its field than the film was in its own category. Even better: those familiar with the film adaptation will get to rediscover the novel as an (almost) entirely new work. While the premise remains the same, almost everything else changes from the timing of the plot twists to the very issue of the trial itself.

Written in 1996 -well before Big Tobacco started losing civil liability suits- the book is about how, even outside the courtroom, both sides of the argument will try to ensure that the jury will turn a favorable verdict. Trials are too important to be left to juries, claimed the movie, and the same rationale applies here: When the issue can be billions of dollars in potential profit, you can be certain that no cent will be spared in order to manipulate the jurors themselves.

The potential jurors are spied upon, photographed, psychoanalyzed at a distance, meticulously rated for potential bias. At the jury selection step, they’re cautiously questioned and picked by both sets of lawyers. The resulting twelve people will get to decide an explosive civil suit. But jury selection is merely the first step. Jury consultant Rankin Fitch likes to think of himself as the master of the game, the occult power manipulating the jury to his own purposes for his powerful clients. But he’s in for a shock when he receives proof that someone else, in the jury, can manipulate the twelve men and women on whom he depends. The verdict is his, says his mysterious interlocutor, as long as he pays a few million dollars. Otherwise, well, it’ll be a disastrous legal precedent against Big Tobacco…

At the very least, The Runaway Jury ranks high in terms of originality. While other novels have played around with the notion of manipulating jurors before, they’ve seldom done so with the scope and suspense of Grisham’s work. This novel is packed with fascinating details and vignettes about civil liability suits and the curious habits of jurys. The result is mesmerizing, gripping from beginning to end.

What the book does better than the film is to give a clear picture of the mental game required in order to manipulate the members of the jury to a state where one leader could influence the matter one way or the other. It also makes clearer the admiring relationship between Finch and his elusive temptress, and throws in an extra little bit of financial manipulation at the end. Characters aren’t as clearly good (or bad) as in the film, motivations are a bit more complex and the result is a little more realistic.

By far the best Grisham I’ve read so far, and indeed one of my favorite thriller of the year, The Runaway Jury is a unique procedural courtroom drama (to coin an unwieldy expression) with plenty of great details and no-less fascinating characters. Fans of the film won’t be disappointed, and neither will wayward Grisham readers.

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