The Partner, John Grisham

Island, 1997 (1998 reprint), 468 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22604-X

Ever since John Grisham started hitting the best-seller lists, critics have been saying terrible things about his fiction: His stuff repeats itself, deals in easy populist clichés, lacks stylistic flair, etc. For a long while, I bought into the anti-hype: After an indifferent reaction to Grisham’s first four novels (A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client), I took a long break. It took the movie adaptation of The Runaway Jury to make me interested in Grisham’s fiction again, with pleasantly surprising results. Picking up The Partner and being equally entertained may be the beginning of a renewed appreciation for the author.

It starts as if it was a sequel to The Firm: After years spent running and hiding from his old life, ex-lawyer Patrick Lanigan is captured by men hired to find him. His crime? Faking his death, stealing ninety million dollars from crooks and slipping away. As you can guess, criminals can do many unpleasant things to get that much money back. Torturing Lanigan to find out the location of the money is one of the first things that comes to their mind once he’s safely handcuffed. But Lanigan has an accomplice, one that will engineer his transfer to lawful authorities and provide his defence lawyer with enough legal ammunition to keep things interesting.

As the story moves back to Mississippi, everyone is only too happy to welcome Lanigan with a flurry of lawsuits. His wife files for divorce; insurance companies sue him for fraud; everyone wants the money and the state charges Lanigan with murder to explain the fact that a body was certainly buried in his place… Welcome back, Patrick; this way to the courthouse, please.

Tortured, detained, swamped in unfriendly lawsuits, you’d think that Lanigan is merely a few courtroom scenes away from a crispy spot on the electric chair. But don’t be so sure: As the story of Lanigan’s disappearance is gradually revealed, there’s a lot more to this story than you may think. Maybe not much more than you’ll be able to guess, but more than enough to keep you interested.

Entertainment is what Grisham is all about, after all. The Partner is a page-turner of frightening efficiency, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that most of the book consists of exposition thinly disguised as conversations between lawyers. Lanigan’s capture is the defining action moment of the story, but The Partner often spends more time explaining, in painstaking detail, the way Lanigan got away with his fabulous escape plan four years earlier. Before long, it’s not hard to guess where the novel is heading. (I certainly had an early lock on the big final revelation, though the last-page twist caught me by surprise.)

From a technical perspective, Grisham often slips viewpoints between character without the adequate breaks, a sloppy lack of control that may annoy a number of readers. It’s not the book’s worst flaw: From the audience’s point of view, The Partner flounders a long time in search of a protagonist. Lanigan may have the lion’s share of the scenes, but he’s so secretive, even to the reader, that he’s more akin to an interesting phenomenon (a genius-level legal escape artist, one is tempted to say) than a sympathetic protagonist. Readers may come to rely on friendly defence lawyer Sandy McDermott as a stand-in, but even he is just another one of the supporting characters revolving around the bed-ridden mystery that is Lanigan. Too bad… but then again, if this is a procedural legal thriller, maybe it’s best to consider the convoluted escape plans as the book’s true stars.

But no matter, because it’s difficult to stop reading once the The Partner gets going. Frankly, it takes a lot of guts and skills for Grisham to immobilize his main character in a hospital room, set most of his action in a series of meetings and still manage to deliver a novel that reads at two hundred pages per hour. The writing may be featureless, but it’s perfect when it’s intended to keep the reader around for “just one more chapter”.

You could dissect The Partner until you’d be left with yet another populist southern-lawyer thriller written for speed over style, and you’d end up missing the point of the book: It’s fun, it’s surprisingly interesting and it leaves a good impression. Maybe even reason enough to pick up Grisham’s other novels.

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