John Grisham

The Firm (1993)

The Firm (1993)

(On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve complained about this before, so feel free to tune out as I once again complain about the disappearance of the bid-budget realistic thriller in today’s spectacle-driven cinema. A movie like The Firm, adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novel, focusing on realistic elements and featuring a bunch of well-known actors would be a much tougher sell twenty years later. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot more to like here than in an umpteenth dull fantasy movie going over the same plot points. While I don’t claim that The Firm is a work of genius, it’s a solid thriller aimed at post-teenage audiences. It did pretty well at the box office, and it’s not hard to understand why in-between good actors such as Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, a bald Ed Harris, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Holly Hunter working at their peak (with surprising appearances by pre-Saw Tobin Bell as an assassin and Wilford Brimley as a notably evil character) and a story that needles both organized crime and government. The thrills may not feel pulse-pounding by today’s standard, but the film makes up for it through semi-clever plotting, a good handle on the revelations of its material and protagonists sympathetic enough that we’re invested in them rather than the action itself. If I sound like a cranky old critic bemoaning the state of current cinema, it’s largely because The Firm is both an exemplary piece of early-nineties filmmaking and a contrast to today’s similarly budgeted films. It’s got this particular pre-digital patina, a serious intent and actors being asked to actually act throughout the film. I’m not as pessimistic about 2016 cinema as you may guess from this review, but I could certainly stand a few more of those movies today.

A Time to Kill (1996)

A Time to Kill (1996)

(On TV, July 2016) There was a time, before the McConnaissance, before the Decade of Rom-Coms, when Matthew McConaughey was hailed as a promising young actor, and A Time to Kill (alongside Contact, Amistad and Lone Star) was part of the evidence. Watching it today is like unearthing vintage McConaughey, made even better by the calibre of the cast surrounding him. Samuel L. Jackson in a genuinely unsettling angry father role? Kevin Spacey as a slimy prosecutor? Sandra Bullock as the brilliant girl who comes to save the day? Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Chris Cooper as part of the scenery? Not bad at all. While director Joel Schumaker lets the film run long, he knows what he’s doing in giving it a sweaty high-polish gloss. (Do I need to highlight once more the disappearance of the big-budget standalone thriller in today’s Hollywood industry?) The story is adapted reasonably faithfully from the John Grisham novel, including the uncomfortable considerations of vigilantism. In fact, the movie may be a bit more upsetting in the way it squarely places its sympathies with the justice-seeker and conflating it with a victory for the oppressed (as in; racists are bad, so they get what they deserve and never mind the judicial process.) There’s unpleasant stuff going just under the glossy surface of the story, and it’s not clear whether this is entirely intentional from either Grisham or the screenwriter. Still, A Time to Kill can coast a long time on the charm and persona of its stars. In the end, it’s a film best seen for its cast and execution than for moral questions left untouched.

The Rainmaker (1997)

The Rainmaker (1997)

(On TV, July 2015) Early-career John Grisham was often accused of writing the same story over and over again, but it’s a good story, and The Rainmaker boils it down to perhaps its simplest essence: A young Southern lawyer, basely out of law school, takes on the Establishment and wins –although the ending proves to be bittersweet.  There isn’t much more to it, and there doesn’t need to be once the atmosphere and details are filled-in.  A much younger Matt Damon plays the protagonist with a good deal of naiveté and steely resolve, with Danny DeVito turning in a rather good performance as his much more devious sidekick, and Jon Voigt is deliciously slimy as a seasoned lawyer with all the resources at his disposal.  Otherwise, this is a film that uses a basic story as a framework for moments, giving us a credible insight in the life of a young lawyer working way above his head.  The Rainmaker may not be the best movie adapted from Grisham’s work (I’m still partial to Runaway Jury) but it’s almost certainly the purest representation of what Grisham has spent a long time doing on the page.

Playing for Pizza, John Grisham

Playing for Pizza, John Grisham

Doubleday, 2007, 262 pages, C$26.95hc, ISBN 978-0-385-52500-8

Something very strange happens to best-selling authors once it becomes clear that they can write anything and still get it published.  In some cases, their editors become powerless to stop them from ranting about their wacky pet theories, and the result is a body of work that becomes crazier and more insular as it goes on.  John Grisham’s case is a bit more complicated, as he’s been taking more and more chances writing outside the type of novel that have made his reputation.  Skipping Christmas was a first attempt, and Playing for Pizza is just as complete a departure from Grisham’s legal-thriller roots.  It’s an Italian travelogue like The Broker, except without the serious thriller angle.  And while it’s one of the least consequential pieces that Grisham ever wrote, it’s still as enjoyable to read as anything else from him… even though you may not remember much of it a day later.

The premise is a joke in itself, as a football player wakes up to find that he’s just fumbled a crucial game in the most enraging way possible.  Unable to find a job anywhere in North America after his very public humiliation, he accepts one of his agent’s most desperate suggestion and leaves for Italy, where he ends up on a quasi-amateur football team while waiting for the storm to settle back home.  Once settled in Parma, however, our protagonist comes to enjoy the scenery, make friends, settle scores with a mean American sports journalist (by punching him in the face, as football jocks are wont to do in settling their issues with impunity) and rediscover himself.  He also –spoiler- wins a few games along the way.

If you’re looking for more plot, grab another Grisham book.  There isn’t much more here to Playing for Pizza than detailed description of la dolce vita as our protagonist plays tourist, then becomes an apprentice-citizen in Parma.  The football games are always followed by pizza among friends, and it’s this kind of relaxed atmosphere that ends up being the novel’s main preoccupation.  If you’re a North American having traveled to Europe, this kind of narrative will feel intensely familiar.  Strange customs!  Language issues!  Non-American lifestyles!  No parking anywhere!  Influent friends fixing problems with the law!  (For the dark side of this charmingly corrupt Italian lifestyle, read Douglas Preston’s more harrowing experience in The Monster of Florence.)  It’s a novel where you sit back and enjoy, and maybe make a note to head for the closest Italian restaurant in order to enjoy some of the food lusciously described every few pages.

It often reads a lot like The Broker, a previous novel in which the author used his holidays as an excuse to set a novel in Italy.  This time, however, Grisham has dispensed entirely with the burden of suspense and just freed himself to write about food, tourism, football and romance, with a tone that’s all smiles.  It’s likely to appeal to a number of possible readers, but is it enough?

Part of the problem with Playing for Pizza is that the protagonist isn’t much of anything.  A failed football player who finds that it’s better to be a big fish in a small bowl; who gets the girl for no other reason that he’s the hero of the novel; who punches people in the face when they displease him and gets away with it.  You can see how that kind of character appeals to a strong streak of wish-fulfillment, but the danger of such indulgences is that they can reach a narrow public and feel obnoxious to anyone who doesn’t identify with it.  This limits the novel’s appeal and contributes to its inconsequentiality: It’s not a hard novel to read, but try to remember something from it more than a few hours later and you’re liable to picture Northern Italy, food, small cars and maybe a few football scenes.

This, obviously, is what Grisham intended, and a chunk of the novel’s charm is seeing the author indulge himself in a bit of meaningless fun.  Not everything has to be about southern lawyers tempted by corruption, or even about serious plot mechanics.  If Grisham is willing to use his bestselling credentials to write this kind of book –turning holiday memories in another crop of royalties–, then who are we to begrudge him his fun?  At least he’s not jumping on a soapbox and telling us about a shape-shifting lizard conspiracy threatening the world.

The Brethern, John Grisham

The Brethern, John Grisham

Dell, 2002, 368 pages, C$45.00 hc, ISBN 0-385-49746-6

Since I’m already on record as being a big fan of Grisham’s post-Runaway Jury career largely because of Grisham’s experimentation with new ways of telling the same stories, I might as well take apart The Brethren and explain why it doesn’t work as well as it should even if it does playfully experiment.

Like many Grisham novels, it largely takes place in the south-eastern United States.  This time, we’re off to Florida, to a minimal-security federal prison in which three incarcerated judges (the titular brethren) have decided to be proactive in their forced retirement.  We first meet them as they dispense courtyard justice to their fellow convicts, but it doesn’t take a long time until we’re shown their real game: an extortion scam in which they entrap rich men through personal ads placed in newspapers of interest to the gay community, then threaten them with exposure once the pen-pal relationship deepens.

So far so good, but there’s another more surprising side to the novel as well: While the judges are conducting business from prison, a young federal congressmen is tapped by the CIA to become a presidential candidate on the single issue of national security.  They provide him with funding, and the assurance that national security will be a hot topic in the coming months.  The candidate simply has to go through the motions, and pretty soon he’s seen as the favourite come election time.

There’s a snag, though: As you may expect, the judges have snagged the congressman in their scheme, and the attempts of the CIA to protect their handpicked candidate ironically make matters even worse.  Pretty soon, the CIA is trying to exert leverage on the incarcerated judges, but it’s not clear who’s got the advantage…

As the above plot summary may suggest, the book’s biggest problem is that there are no obvious characters to cheer for.  Sure, the congressman is being exploited for minor personal foibles; but he’s solidly at the mercy of his CIA puppet-masters.  The CIA characters are far too powerful to be interesting, while the Brethren are just con artists with fancy résumés and their pet lawyer is too corrupt to be pitied even when bad things happen to him.  This accumulation of unlikable characters doesn’t make the novel uninteresting, but it certainly lessens the readers’ involvement in taking sides and hoping that it wins at the end.  Which such unpleasant forces at play, it feels like a demonstration of clever plotting more than an actually story to enjoy.

So it’s relatively good news to find out that, despite an uninvolving plot, The Brethren remains as readable as anything else Grisham has done.  There are some amusing plot turns as the CIA’s own incompetence (and acts-of-God such as a plane nearly crash-landing) ends up making a fairly simple situation even worse.  It’s not as much of a page-turner, but it sustains a definite narrative momentum, and readers won’t have any trouble following the twisted conclusion as unlikely characters are rewarded for their brinkmanship.  Ironically, this may be one of Grisham’s happiest ending yet… at least for the characters in the story.

For those following the evolution of Grisham’s career, there are a few points of interest in The Brethren.  For the first time, Grisham tackles political process issues: much of the novel is dedicated to a demonstration of how massive campaign contributions can alter the course of a presidential candidacy, how the CIA deals with the political apparatus (or rather how it would like to deal with it) and how a political campaign goes.  This novel spends a lot of time in Washington, and that in turn sets the stage for later more overtly thriller-oriented novels like The Broker.  Meanwhile, the emphasis on money once again reflects one of Grisham’s perennial themes.

For those who criticize Grisham for “the same old plot” over and over again, The Brethern seems custom-designed to earn the author a bit of leeway, prefiguring the even more dramatic departures from formula that would follow this novel.  It may not rank as one of his finest efforts, but it manages to be interesting, which is already not so bad.

Skipping Christmas, John Grisham

Skipping Christmas, John Grisham

Doubleday, 2001, 177 pages, C$22.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50841-7

Western civilization (if there is such a thing) has a very strange relationship with cynicism. It is, for many people, a defense mechanism. A way to feel above a system in which we are all co-conspirators; a way to show how much better we are than everyone else; a way to assert that we’re better than our neighbors, our parents; our former naive selves. Pushed too far in that direction, cynicism can be over-used to disengage from the world and create a solipsist personal reality from which everything else looks stupid. And yet cynicism is necessary at a time where we’re bombarded with a web of emotional manipulation hiding commercial intent.

Yes, this is a review of John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.

You see, it begins as our protagonists peek behind the sham that is the Christmas frenzy. Left home alone after their daughter’s departure, the Kranks make a few calculation and discover that they can afford a lavish cruise holiday as long as they refuse to spend the $6000 they usually put aside for the holiday celebrations. It means no tree, no party, no gifts, no charitable donations, no decorations.

The first reaction of most readers will be something like “$6000? That’s your first problem right there!”, but never mind: We’re in American upper-middle-class fantasy-land, here, and sympathizing with idiots is the first requirement of this inconsequential fable.

It helps that the Kranks, as stupid as they may be, aren’t the biggest idiots around: their entire neighborhood is even more moronic, exerting considerable peer pressure to make the Kranks reconsider their worst Christmas-blackout intentions. Their street is obsessed with decoration conformity; various charities are socially mugging them for money; everyone expects a party.

That first asocial section of the novel is enjoyable as long as you manage to identify with a single-income couple blowing $6000 on Christmas holidays and weeping about it. If you happen to read the novel in the maniacal run-up to Christmas Eve, part of it will make you want to cheer and say “Good for you , Kranks!”.

It’s when the plot meets a major contrivance (along a seemingly endless succession of contrivances) that things take a turn in another direction. Forced to dramatically change plans, the Kranks bow frantically to peer pressure, outspend their way into a last-minute celebration and end up saving that elusive spirit of the holidays by bowing down to the golden altar of social conformity. Minor characters provide emotional catharsis. Readers who applauded the novel’s initial cynicism are made to feel like chumps for ignoring the true meaning of Christmas.

That’ll teach you to be cynic.

So who’s the target audience of Skipping Christmas? Everyone and no one. Much like its protagonists, it tries to dismiss Christmas yet can’t help but pay tribute to it. People who love the first half may not be quite so taken by the second one (and vice-versa, although it works better in that direction). To give some credit to Grisham, though, the novel is never less than a joy to read, even if you almost violently disagree with what it’s trying to do: there are a number of good laughs here and there, and as long as you buy into parts of the premise, it’s amusing to see the protagonists flail away from Christmas, then back to it.

If nothing else, this is the kind of flawed novel that is fascinating to discuss with others: Like it or not, it features plenty of things to argue about. After all, what was the last Christmas-themed novels that gets a reviewer going about the nature of cynicism in Western civilization?

(I’ll note in passing that the movie adaptation -which I haven’t seen yet- got excruciating reviews.)

The Last Juror, John Grisham

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.

The Broker, John Grisham

Dell, 2005, 422 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24158-8

It must be good to be John Grisham. Sign a contract with a publisher, take a long trip to Italy, see the local sights, write a novel about the experience. Final step: Profit, as the book sells zillions.

It’s not such a bad deal even for us readers: Grisham hasn’t allowed success to destroy his ability to write competent thrillers, and some will even argue that the latter-period Grisham is even better than what his first few novels promised. While his fiction still revolves around familiar themes (lawyers, money, ethical concerns), he has also shown willingness to stretch the envelope a bit and play around with different elements. Grisham has been able to deliver both what his readers expect, and -presumably- what he’ s been wanting to write.

The Broker stretches the Grisham oeuvre in two different ways. For one thing, it’s closer to a straight-up thriller than to the type of judicial thriller that Grisham readers are used to. The story revolves around a complex baiting game in which the US government frees a prisoner with too many secrets in order to find out who’s most keenly interested in killing him. Spy satellites and foreign interests are involved.

But the prisoner has no intention of being so cooperative in his own demise. Initially led by US government contacts to the sunny skies of a Northern Italy city, our protagonist soon starts making other plan. But not too quickly, which leads us to Grisham’s second distinctive departure for this novel: The Broker often reads as a travelogue of northeastern Italy as the action grinds to a halt and our protagonist plays tourist.

It’s not unpleasant, mind you: Even when he’s not busy advancing the plot, Grisham writes engagingly enough that even descriptions of churches and small cafés are interesting. The atmosphere of the novel, even loosely wrapped in a thriller outline, is one that feels like a vacation. Even as our protagonist’s enemies close in, as he rebels against his minders and turns the tables on the US government, The Broker is the very definition of escapist entertainment. I suspect that not all readers will be so lenient, but Grisham has a gift for reasonably entertaining prose. If that takes the form of a travel memoir with thriller bookends, well, so be it. It’s all fun to read anyway.

More serious problems arise when considering the overall MacGuffin that precipitates the plot: Some kind of ultra-secret satellite network that can be hacked by a bunch of post-grads, while mystifying both the US intelligence services and their hackers. There’s a reason why Grisham doesn’t dwell all that much on those background thriller elements: They don’t make much sense.

But if you’re the forgiving type, as you probably need to be in order to enjoy this novel to the fullest, it’s worth ignoring the wobbly setup and the lengthy travelogue to get to the final section of the novel, which hails back to the types of high-stakes negotiations and bluffing games that formed the backbone of previous Grisham novels. Once again, it leads to a fuzzy moral conclusion where (Grisham seems to argue) it’s best to run away without money than remain a slave of the system, or something like that. Someone could do a thesis on how many of Grisham’s novels conclude with “and then he/she/they ran away”.

But if you’ve been following the Grisham oeuvre so far, The Broker remains a new and interesting brick in the wall. It’s got most of the Grisham pet obsessions and introduces a number of new wrinkles that may very well play out in future novels. It’s not quite what most people will expect, but it’s a lot of fun to read.

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?

The Summons, John Grisham

Dell, 2002, 373 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24107-3

For a writer often decried as a populist hack, John Grisham sure stretches his grasp a lot wider than some critics may be willing to acknowledge. After a few debut novels so similar in tone that they made Grisham a sitcom gag, readers were delighted to find a slightly different style following The Rainmaker: Novels that were as much characters studies as social critiques, coming at the “southern legal thriller” label from very different directions. Then came even looser works such as the straight-up family drama A Painted House or the holiday comedy Surviving Christmas. The Summons is another successful entry in Grisham’s post-Rainmaker renaissance, still a southern legal thriller, but with yet another emphasis.

It starts as law professor Ray Atlee receives a letter: His father, a well-known judge in a small rural Mississippi community, is dying and wants to see his two sons. Summoned to his childhood home, Ray makes two shocking discovery: First, that his father died before he could meet his sons a last time; second, that there are millions of dollars in cash hidden away in the house. Where does the money come from? And who else knows about it? As a comfortable academic, Ray doesn’t really need the money… but it sure would be handy. But it’s not simply a matter of picking up the money and depositing it at the nearest bank: as the threats pile up and the mystery of the money’s origin becomes more dangerous, Ray may have to do a lot of hard thinking in order to keep the money… or his life.

But there’s more to The Summons than just a thriller about a man and three million untraceable dollars in cash. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the novel (beyond its awesome page-turning appeal) is how it engages in a moral discussion about money and how it affects people. Ray Atlee is a decent man, but his first thought at the sight of millions of dollars is to hide and keep it all. Potentially complicating his actions are his doubts about the origins of the money: was his father part of a criminal ring? Was he bribed for a decision? Was he holding on to the money for a shadowy acquaintance? As Ray takes stock of his own life (divorced, comfortable, perhaps a bit lonely), the money -even left unspent- starts having an influence. For the reader, a lot of time is spend on the razor’s edge, wondering about Ray’s likability. Much like Scott B. Smith’s A Simple Plan (which is even acknowledged in Chapter 19), The Summons is an attempt to square off morality against or alongside money. Unlike Smith, however, Grisham isn’t so dark or so blunt to assume that money is evil: His thinking leads to a conclusion that twists without snapping believability and brings along an interesting moral reversal. Not since The Partner has Grisham played so well with expectations.

There are other treats here and there in The Summons, of course: Ray is an amateur pilot, and so we get a glimpse of life at ten thousand feet aboveground. Ray’s brother is what could be called a professional addict, with all the consequences and detox details that this implies. The portrait of the elder Atlee’s lingering influence in a small town is a nice piece of atmosphere that probably owes much to A Painted House. A late-book visit to a multimillionaire lawyer nicknamed “The King of Torts” oozes contempt.

As a thriller, The Summons isn’t Grisham’s best, but that’s unlikely to be much of a bother: it wouldn’t be a Grisham novel without the author’s usual terrific style. The Summons reads at two hundred pages an hour, propelled forward by an easy prose style, solid structure and a good bunch of characters.

Still, there is a bothersome aspect to the final revelations, which satisfy on a moral standpoint but leave a lot to be desired in terms of plausibility. Worse; a number of questions about the how of the deception are casually dismissed by a reference to two hoodlums conveniently kept off-stage. After the red herrings raised earlier in the book, it all seems a bit quick, a bit pat in order to bring along the last few pages on which Grisham wanted to end. A slight problem in a book otherwise so fun to read it’s hardly worth the trouble to complain.

What more satisfying is the constant appreciation of how Grisham is leveraging his strengths and limits into a series of highly enjoyable books. After his blockbuster success during the nineties, it’s good to see that Grisham is still stretching the envelope, still playing along with his chosen areas of expertise, still delivering good entertainment to fans and readers. The Summons may not be anything more than a good thriller, but it’s satisfying enough as it is.

The Street Lawyer, John Grisham

Island, 1998, 452 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-29565-3

Oh, that wily John Grisham. That clever, manipulative, populist, puppy-like John Grisham. No wonder why he’s said to be one of the nicest guys in the business. No wonder why he sells books by the truckload. No wonder why he’s been at the top of the game for ten years.

A flat description of The Street Lawyer would make you shake your head in sorrow: It’s about a young lawyer! Who rebels against the system! And sues big bad corporations on behalf of the people! And fights crime! It’s like all the other John Grisham novels ever published so far! It’s packed with coincidences, familiar plot structures and an ending you can see coming from half the book away! Plus, it’s written with short sentences and a vocabulary of less than a thousand words: it’s guaranteed to be understandable by 95% of reading-age Americans!

But boy, does it work.

Forget your yearnings for fine literature, break out that Nietzsche dust jacket you use to camouflage your commuting reading and jump head-first in The Street Lawyer. You will know within pages if this is going to be a good ride.

It certainly starts on a high note, as our young lawyer protagonist is taken hostage by a homeless man with a grudge against his legal firm. The siege soon ends thanks to the timely intervention of a sniper, but the impact lingers on for our protagonist who, thanks to a hideous series of coincidences we rarely see outside the movies, finds himself divorced, laid-off and somewhat on the run. Tell no one, but The Street Lawyer is a keenly disguised mainstream novel about a character undergoing a major life crisis: dissatisfied by his money-grubbing career, he descends through society to find himself helping the poor through his mad legal skillz. A street lawyer is born, but this being a Grisham novel, you can bet that there’s a major civil lawsuit just waiting to make an appearance. Will our hero find a way to stick it to the man, help improve his city and find love in entirely expected places? Well of course: we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Street Lawyer is a cleverly manufactured book that gives us exactly what we expect, and it’s hard to disrespect something like that. Every step of the character’s changing life is carefully telegraphed, described and significant: If it takes a random car accident to make sure that the protagonist finds himself painted in a corner, well, why not? But what could have been exasperating in the hands of a different writer here comes across as par for the course. The attraction of the book is not in its conclusion, but in the way it hits the appropriate beats with exact timing.

It helps a lot that the writing is so crisp. Many of Grisham’s contemporaries could learn from the way he shapes his scenes and consciously avoids any stylistic flourish: the non-nonsense first-person narration echoes The Rainmaker, while the interest in an odd corner of the law (here, lawyers for the very poor) recalls his previous Runaway Jury (though without the intensity of that previous work.) Here again, we find dozens of small and telling details about the life of an everyday lawyer, bolstered with eloquent pleas in favour of greater social equality. (But not too eloquent: In a telling scene, the protagonist finds himself commiserating with a homeless man whose life story suggests that homelessness can happen to anyone… only to find that he’s a fake.)

Compared to previous Grisham novels, The Street Lawyer fits comfortably in the middle of the pack: It doesn’t have the clockwork elegance of The Partner, but remains more polished than Grisham’s first few books. What’s obvious, though, is that Grisham will have a long and successful career as long as he can keep delivering books like this one. The point is not that he’s better than other writers working in the same field (you and I can both name at least a dozen authors who somehow “deserve” as much success), but that he can deliver what’s expected of him, year after year. As far as I’m concerned, this is another successful entry in Grisham’s post-Runaway Jury revival: Expect more reviews of his books here, continuing with The Kings of Torts.

The Rainmaker, John Grisham

Island, 1995, 598 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22165-X

At his best, John Grisham delivers a satisfactory re-telling of his favourite story (“Young southern lawyer fights evil organization”) but never strays too far away from it. It’s a good niche, when you think of it: there’s regional colour, a crowd-pleasing plot, solid movie material and the potential for a sympathetic hero. (There are worse ways to earn a living than being a best-selling author.) But the real fun starts when Grisham starts playing tricks and variations on his familiar elements: Often, those quirks and structural choices can become the central point of interest of a book.

Nowhere else in Grisham’s oeuvre so far is this truer than in The Rainmaker, an obvious David-against-Goliath story whose courtroom component is one of the most lop-sided legal contest you’ll ever encounter in legal fiction. If the courtroom drama was the main focus of the book, we’d have a problem justifying the existence of The Rainmaker as a piece of fiction. But it’s not. For better of for worse, Grisham has other things in mind for the novel, and I’m not sure they all fit together.

The break from Grisham’s other books is obvious from the first page: For the first time in his career, Grisham uses first-person narration (present-tense, no less) to tell the story of one Rudy Baylor, a law student about to graduate. At the beginning of the story, most things seem to be running in Rudy’s favour: He’s got cash-flow problems, sure, but he’s also weeks away from a job with a well-regarded law firm. But then the hammer falls. In short order, Rudy loses the job, files for bankruptcy, moves out of his apartment and finds himself with next to no prospects. Still, he’s got a file in his hand, a civil suit that just may be worth millions…

Plot-wise, Rudy’s fight with the eeevil insurance company of Great Benefit Life is one of the most one-sided contest you’ll ever read. Sure, it’s the whole single-David against corporate-Goliath fight again, but Grisham stacks the deck so ridiculously in favour of his populist protagonist that the courtroom becomes the vicarious blooding of an easy target. Rudy’s corporate opponents make every mistake in the book, and face the added difficulty of having the facts against them. Rudy, on the other hand, has a sympathetic jury, a friendly judge, two or three dirty tricks up his sleeve and some killer pieces of evidence. It’s not much of a contest, and not much of a drama either (though it makes for cheerful reading).

If that was all there was to The Rainmaker, there wouldn’t be much point in going on. But there’s more. You could argue that the real point of the novel isn’t the insurance case, but the portrait of a young lawyer during difficult times. Rudy doesn’t come from a good family, can’t depend on a trust fund and doesn’t display prodigious legal abilities. But he works hard, never gives up and scrapes by on the strength of his conviction. The first-person narration is an ideal vehicles for the elliptical asides, the showy supporting characters and the day-to-day drudgery of being a working lawyer. Tasty stuff; fans of Grisham’s other thrillers won’t be surprised to learn that this novel is as compelling as Grisham’s previous onces. Set aside some free time to make your way through this one.

Still, the novel is also filled with loose ends and choices that don’t ring true. A number of those things (a mysterious fire, for instance) seem to be kept in reserve for a final revelation that, ultimately, never comes. All, including a romance, seems rushed and crammed in an ending that doesn’t conclude as much as it gives up and throws everything back onto the table in desperation. Conscious choices by Grisham, I’m sure, but the purpose of which still has me dubious: Sure, part of it is an attempt to subvert Grisham’s own favourite story… but the way it’s handled seems just as contrived as the one-sided courtroom theatrics.

But don’t let that stop you from grabbing a copy of The Rainmaker. Grisham devotees will note the blueprint of The Runaway Jury buried deep in The Rainmaker, what with the emphasis on civil suits and the passing mention of jury consultants. But even readers without an encyclopedic knowledge of Grisham’s fiction will be so completely swept along by the narration that the book’s problems will hardly register. And that’s a trick that sets the magicians apart from the other authors, whether or not they’re telling their favourite story all over again.

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.

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.