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?