Dell, 2004, 486 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24157-X
I often have trouble convincing people that John Grisham is a far more interesting author than most so-called serious readers are willing to concede. Detractors will point at his first few books as being the epitome of repetition. Meanwhile, I keep pointing at his post-Runaway Jury novels as the proof of what happens when an author starts self-consciously stretching the boundaries of his own pigeonhole. And The Last Juror is another perfect example of the process.
Like most Grisham novels, it does include some element of crime in the southern states. But even marketed as any other Grisham novel, it’s actually about something else: life in a small town.
The narrator of the story is one Willie Traynor, a young hotshot journalist who comes to Clayton, Mississippi in 1970 and unexpectedly becomes a part of the community: Smelling an opportunity, Willie buys the local newspaper employing him and starts making changes. As he learns more about the community and becomes part of it, The Last Juror becomes the story of a man and a town changing over the years. Willie himself narrates the story from the perspective of an older man who now knows better.
I can’t help but admire the way this novel suckers readers with back-jacket copy promising a tense thriller, and then serves them a quasi-mainstream story of southern comfort. Oh, there is a criminal plot all right: The sordid murder of a young single mother, with a suspect that comes from the rural county’s most suspicious clan. The murder is shocking to the small community, but no one wants to tackle the accused’s family except Willie himself. When the murdered is convicted and placed behind bars, everyone breathes easier… at least until a set of circumstances and corrupt officials end up shortening the murderer’s sentence to a few years followed by an early parole. Trouble soon follows when members of the jury that convicted the murderer start dying shortly after his release…
But this plot-line is just the clothesline on which hangs the rest of the novel. The bulk of The Last Juror is a description of how Willie becomes part of Clayton, ingratiating himself to the locals, befriending some extraordinary characters, attending community meetings and measuring his liberal urban attitudes against long-held local opinions. Clayton changes during the seventies: Vietnam divides the community, mega-department stores come to town, racial prejudice quiets down and Willie does his best to change with the times. His newspaper business goes well, but the real battle is in how the community regards him. He know he’ll never be accepted as a native son, but he does his best to become a part of Clayton.
Through him, we also learn a few lessons in southern hospitality. The pacing of a rural community, the ways alliances grow between members of a small group, the burden of reputations that can be established early on, and so forth. Grisham’s always been a gifted storyteller, but The Last Juror is amazingly more interesting as a novel of atmosphere than a tale of crime fiction. This isn’t to diminish the role of the mystery in the novel: It provides a baseline of mysteries and tension that does much to launch the narrative and keep us reading. But the flavour of the story comes from the vignettes, the unusual incidents and the characters that revolve around Willie’s stay in Clayton.
Grisham arguably cheats in his resolution of the story by providing resolution-by-coincidence, but it’s not as problematic as you may think: The pieces finally come together as we understand that Willie cannot remain in Clayton, and that the ties linking him to ten years in a small town have to be severed somehow. It doesn’t end happily, but it ends well.
Colourful, amusing and entertaining, The Last Juror is an unexpected delight from Grisham, who continues to prove that he’s a far more interesting writer than one would assume. Popular opinion of his worth as a writer largely dates back to his first novels and the films that were adapted from them. But unlike other writers, Grisham has since moved on to more interesting and diverse material. Without severing the links to his past work, Grisham continues to set out in new directions. The Last Juror feels like an hybrid between one of his legal thrillers and his mainstream novels: Genre-aware without being genre-specific, but using the strengths of a good mystery as a backdrop on which to paint an engrossing story of small-town America. Not bad at all.