The King of Torts, John Grisham

Dell, 2003, 472 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24153-7

There is, at first, a comforting familiarity to John Grisham’s The King of Torts, especially if you’ve read most of the Grisham oeuvre: A young lawyer stuck at the Public Defender’s Office gets saddled with a dead-end case that ends being a lot more important than anyone can guess. Pretty soon, hey, we’re back in the old usual groove: The lawyer’s client was on experimental drugs, and the pharmaceutical company sends one of its top fixers with an offer to our hero: a few million dollars in exchange for a quick and jurisprudence-free resolution.

If this would have been an early Grisham novel, you could probably write the end yourself: Lawyer tells fixer to get stuffed, takes the case to court, triumphs over Big Pharma, avoids client’s death penalty, gets hot girlfriend and strikes one victory for the common people. The end, soon to be followed by a major Hollywood adaptation.

But this isn’t early Grisham. Ever since The Runaway Jury, Grisham has been playing around in the legal thriller sandbox, writing variations on a populist theme. Here, we get a bit of The Street Lawyer before slamming into the concrete facade of a few million dollars. Because, oh yes, our young plucky protagonist jumps on Big Pharma’s offer faster than you can say “tort reform”. Just a few millions, he thinks, and he’ll be set for life. Just a few.

Set squarely in an American society where legal matters are often indistinguishable from fiscal ones, Grisham’s novels have often revolved around vast sums of money. The Partner‘s protagonist is only interesting because he’s sitting on a pile of hidden cash. The Runaway Jury and The Rainmaker both revolved around multi-million dollar settlements. More directly, The Summons recast sudden wealth as a morality play: What if you abruptly found yourself in possession of a small fortune of dubious origins? Would it destroy you?

The King of Torts is a thematic sequel to The Summons in more ways than one. Faithful Grisham readers will remember Patton French, the “King of Torts” lawyer whose mastery of mass torts earned him hundreds of millions of dollars and a short but memorable supporting role. French makes another appearance here as a mentor of sorts, counselling our lawyer protagonist as he gets caught up in the high-flying world of mass tort lawyers and a lifestyle where private planes are de rigueur. (Another element back for a return engagement is the dangerous “Skinny Ben” obesity pill.)

From one familiar arc, we jump to another. There is little doubt that the money will come to poison our protagonist’s life: All that remains is to hop along for the ride, tasting luxury with the self-congratulatory certitude that it’s temporary. Pretty soon, after all, our boy-hero will find himself brought back to the pasture where most of us graze. The only real question of importance is in wondering if the protagonist will be very, mostly or slightly redeemed by the time the ending rolls along.

It plays as you would expect. Grisham’s prose style may not be sophisticated, but it’s astonishingly good at what it sets out to do. This is reading as pure entertainment, packed with details about the world of mass torts and the crazy impact that sudden money can have on people. The Summons tracked the impact of a mere two or three million dollars (as a physical object, even), but The King of Torts kicks it up one or two orders of magnitude. Crazy money means crazy people, of course, and part of the fun of the novel is seeing a down-to-earth protagonist being corrupted by so much wealth… and then finding that there is never such a thing as “too much” money.

Technically, The King of Torts slips up from time to time, breaking away from a restricted third-person POV to sequences from a broader perspective. On the other hand, there are a number of fascinating supporting characters, though most of them are unceremoniously abandoned in the rush for the entirely-expected ending. The disappearance of “the fixer” from the narrative is especially disappointing, given all sorts of questions raised about what he knew… and whether part of the plot was a set-up.

But in the end, this is another solid hit for Grisham, who keeps producing surprising results from a limited palette. Gripping from start to finish, The King of Torts is Grisham remixed, almost a compendium of the author’s other work. Think of him as a jazz musician, spinning variations on a few solid themes. Who can go wrong by talking about “too much” money?

14 thoughts on “The King of Torts, John Grisham”

  1. I have just finished reading THE SUMMONS, it appears that the story has not been completed,I feel as there is more to come. Can you tell me if there is another book that continues the story please?

    Thank you,

    Jim Cartwright

    1. Sorry, Jim,

      Ten years later, there hasn’t been a formal sequel to The Summons, and I believe there may never be: Grisham doesn’t usually write sequels, and the book itself remains a minor entry (ie; no movie adaptation, no cult following, no protagonist built for further adventures) in his bibliography. I refer to The King of Torts as a “thematic sequel” because, as written above. it does re-use a memorable secondary character, shares world-building elements and is just as concerned with sudden money as a morality play. That’s likely to remain as close to a sequel as we’re ever likely to see… although I wouldn’t mind being wrong on this one.

      In her 2007 book Revisiting John Grisham, Mary Beth Pringle analyzes The Summons in far more detail than I do, and concludes that there is potential for a sequel, but it hasn’t materialized.

    1. I definitely agree. Mr. Grisham left the end without an end. I love his writings. I pick up a book and can’t put it down. You’re on the edge of your seat to know ‘what’s next’. What happened to the brothers? Mr. Grisham, we need a sequel to The Summons.

      1. The strange thing is that Grisham is usually good with endings.

    2. I agree with Ed Sankary completely. You need write a real sequel to The Summons. Please don’t leave your devoted fans (me, for one) forever wondering what happened to Ray and Forrest Atlee. Also, I loved your books featuring Jake Brigance. What a great character!

  2. I love the testament and king of torts, John Grisham is really a good story tell. Good job

  3. I actually really liked “The King of Torts”. Over time, it has become one of my favorite novels, and has led to me reading it several times.

    I think the main attraction for me, is that amazing opportunities can come at you from any direction in a short period of time – this is according to my own belief system which follows an entire saga of those who understand the ‘abundance consciousness’. Some draw this into their life randomly, but those who wake up and shift their thinking can have the same prosperity once quickly they give up all the limitations they’ve accepted in their minds.

    What I did not like about this book, is that it puts a very negative spin on having money and success, presented in a very narrow minded view. Additionally, this transition was made within just a couple pages, which made no sense whatsoever.

    Clay went from being sickened by endless consumption and thinking there was no way he could ever spend $20,000 a month, to suddenly wanting a $44 million dollar private jet in just 2-3 pages. The abruptness in the story made no sense when you understand Clay’s character and background. A real person in this situation would likely have been FAR more cautious, and would have laid low for years after making his $100 million instead of taking yet another mass tort from his shady friend Max Pace.

    The author goes too far out of the way to try to show that money corrupts, to the point that he changes Clay’s character. Of course, in reality, it is NOT money and prosperity that corrupts – these things are freeing to people. Corruption comes from accepting immorality.

    Several elements come into play:

    – The massive pharmaceutical industry which does nothing but poison the human body with drugs in to order to cover up the symptoms, instead of changing people’s diet so they don’t become sick in the first place and eventually fully recover

    – Pill-popping losers who came after Clay later because their $40,000 lawsuit wasn’t enough money to compensate them for beings stupid and lazy enough to take a pill instead of changing their diet and daily exercise to cure their problems

    – Clay having a heart of gold, taking care of his Father, and trying to take care of a gold-digging scum-bag slut (Ridley) who was only after his money the whole time

    – Clay holding out for the true love of his life, Rebecca, even though she was a shallow low-life who dumped him because her parents didn’t think he made enough money

    – Clay feeling bad enough to go into the town of the brick-company in order to see first-hand the damage caused by putting a company out of business

    – Clay giving huge bonuses to people in his office for believing in him and leaving OPD to become part of his new firm

    In short – Clay was an unbelievably noble individual, worthy of wealth and prosperity, whose true character would never have succumbed to the endless spending that the author placed on him.

    Unfortunately, in my perspective, religion is an offspring of Marxism, communism, and socialism. It tells you that everyone who is prosperous must be evil, and that the poor should get free money from the people who actually earned it.

    This is very wrong. Capitalism, hard work, and self-responsibility create prosperous nations, just like America used to be. Wealth is not evil, it is what we do with it that makes it good or bad, which is a point I think was entirely missed in this novel.

    Nonetheless, the idea that amazing opportunities are always right around the corner is the reason I still enjoy reading this from time to time.

  4. The story of the Atlee brothers begs to be finished. Who, actually turns out to be the “bad guy” in this saga. Please let us know. It ended too abruptly, without promise of an end.

  5. I loved the summons as all of John Grisham s books..But the summons left me in suspense. ..lost

  6. Ditto to most of above, The Summons ended with more questions than answers.
    Perhaps it’s time to tell us more about the Atlee family.

  7. The summons has to be finished, the ending left more questions than answers, so frustrating!.

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