Grisham writes legal thrillers, a type of novel that has virtually become a genre of its own in recent years. Grisham credits writer Scott F. Turow’s Presumed Innocent (1987) for beginning the trend, but his own novels have served to define that trend. If, as conventional wisdom holds, Americans do not like lawyers, they have shown that they certainly do like books about lawyers. The reading public has purchased vast numbers of Grisham’s books and those of other writers of fiction dealing with the legal profession.
With The Firm, Grisham began a pattern (some critics call it a formula) that he used, with variations, in most of his succeeding books. His plots usually center around protagonists who are young and in some way vulnerable, who are placed in extraordinary circumstances. They find themselves fighting against overwhelming odds in situations in which they should not be able to prevail. Ultimately they may win out over antagonists of apparently superior strength: the U.S. government, the Mafia, giant insurance companies. However, Grisham cannot be counted on to give his readers a standard happy ending.
Some critics have faulted Grisham for shallow character development and for implausible plots; other critics point out, however, that popular fiction is virtually defined by such plots. Grisham himself said that he writes “to grab readers. This isn’t serious literature.” Still, some of Grisham’s books are set apart from other action thrillers by his genuine interest in, and engrossing presentation of, social concerns affecting modern readers.
Grisham’s books are based in the legal profession that he pursued for many years and are usually set in the South, where he grew up and with which he is deeply familiar. Readers curious about the internal functioning of the legal world undoubtedly find his books satisfying in their detailed outlining of the way the law works in actual practice. Readers familiar with southern settings find few false notes in Grisham’s descriptions of his settings in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee.
A Time to Kill
A Time to Kill, set in Mississippi, begins with the brutal rape of a young black girl by two white men. The child survives, and the men are arrested, but before they can be tried the girl’s father shoots them both. The question of his guilt is not at issue; he has committed the killings in public, in full view of numerous witnesses. The plot centers on whether the jury can be persuaded to release a man who has acted to avenge a terrible crime inflicted on his family. Because the killer is black and the victims white, the racial implications are obvious. The book considers the uneasy nature of race relations in modern Mississippi, and it spares neither black nor white southerners in its look at the manipulations for position and media attention related to a highly publicized trial. Some critics have said that the character development in this novel is richer than in Grisham’s subsequent works. The book suffers from faults common to first novels, however; Grisham fails to tie up some of his plot lines in ways that more experienced writers might. After finishing with a character or situation, he tends simply to abandon the person or issue without resolution. Nonetheless, Grisham and some critics consider this his best book.
In The Firm, Grisham debuted the formula that would propel his books to the top of the best-seller lists. Protagonist Mitch McDeere is graduating third in his Harvard Law School class. He has several job offers, but the best is from a firm in Memphis, which offers an outstanding salary, an expensive car, an accessible purchase of an expensive home—all sounding too good to be true. Mitch begins to have questions about the firm almost at once: Why has no one ever quit? What about the two people who died a few years back? The law firmhas a dirty secret, which would be deadly for Mitch to find out: The firm works for the Mafia. After Mitch learns this, he must also learn enough to bargain for his life. The plot of The Firm is fast-paced and fairly straightforward. It has been called simplistic, but in some ways—concerns of popular fiction aside—it also seems more realistic than some of Grisham’s later novels. That is, one might actually imagine the events of this book happening; in some subsequent Grisham books, one would be hard put to believe the occurrence of the events.
The Pelican Brief
Grisham said that he wrote The Pelican Brief and The Client to prove to his wife that he could create credible female protagonists. Both books are examples of the compelling, if improbable, popular novel. In The Pelican Brief, a law student named Darby Shaw writes a legal brief outlining a probable cause for the recent murders of two Supreme Court justices. After she writes the brief, Darby decides it is essentially worthless, but it is picked up and handed to the Justice Department by a law professor, who is also her lover. In fact, Darby has inadvertently discovered the truth of the situation, and from that point on, her life is in jeopardy. The book is exciting and readable but rather hard to believe, qualities shared with his fourth novel, The Client. Neither of these books received particularly strong reviews, though they both sold many copies and were made into films.
The Chamber represents a departure from Grisham’s two preceding novels. Dealing as it does with the imposition of the death penalty, the book is the first of Grisham’s novels to take on a social issue. Sam Cayhall is scheduled to be executed for murder by the state of Mississippi. He has been convicted of planting a bomb that resulted in the deaths of two Jewish children, and his guilt is not in question. Cayhall has few redeeming qualities: He is an unrepentant racist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Cayhall’s case is taken in the final stage of appeals by young lawyer Adam Hall. He is the grandson of the prisoner, although Cayhall is unaware of this at the beginning of their involvement. Hall realizes that he is facing an uphill fight, but he struggles with the case as if he has a chance to win. The strength of this book lies in the picture it offers the reader of the reality of the death penalty. Grisham does not rail against capital punishment; he simply shows the reader the unattractive truth of it. Even given the horror of Cayhall’s crime, one is led to question whether the inhumanity of the death penalty is an appropriate response. The book is flawed by some annoying lapses in editing, but at the time it was published, it received some of Grisham’s strongest critical reviews.
The Runaway Jury
This book is based on an initial premise that may be difficult for some readers to accept: By skillful positioning and design, one might arrange to become a member of a given jury. This book offers a fascinating look at the inside functions of a jury and at the incredible resources wealthy corporations can offer to secure verdicts.
In this case, the juror is Nicholas Easter, and the jury is hearing a case against a major tobacco company. When the story begins, the tobacco companies have never lost a lawsuit brought because a smoker died of cancer, and they have no intention of losing this one. The lawyers for the tobacco companies have volumes of information on everyone called for jury selection, billions of dollars for defense, and no scruples. What they do not know, however, is that they are up against a person almost as skilful and knowledgeable as they are. Grisham’s inside views of the law are, as always, interesting, and the inside views of the jury as it takes shape and reaches its conclusions are particularly fascinating in this novel.
The Street Lawyer
The Street Lawyer represents an interesting departure for Grisham. The book is set in Washington, D.C., rather than in his usual locations further south. Moreover, the story is less a novel than an attempt to raise social consciousness about the plight of the homeless. Grisham has dealt with issues of social interest before, but always in the context of a protagonist fighting large corporations for particular clients: The Runaway Jury took on big tobacco companies, and The Rainmaker was scathing in its condemnation of practices used by unscrupulous insurance companies. The Street Lawyer, however, has a slim plot, with the bulk of the book devoted to the condition of being homeless in America.
In the novel, Michael Brock is a successful young attorney with a large, powerful firm. When a homeless man enters the offices one morning to seek satisfaction for a grievance inflicted by the firm, Michael’s life is changed drastically. His search for answers to the man’s situation leads him into the world of the homeless and those who fight their battles. It also causes him to steal a file that has the potential to cause problems for his firm. The firm fights to have Michael arrested for theft; still, Michael has the damning file. The parties are at something of a standoff. The resolution to the conflict gives the book something of a feel-good ending, but Grisham achieves his purpose: The book is bound to make readers think twice about the ways in which government and society in the modern United States deal with the poor.
Long fiction • A Time to Kill, 1989; The Firm, 1991; The Pelican Brief, 1992; The Client, 1993; The Chamber, 1994; The Rainmaker, 1995; The Runaway Jury, 1996; The Partner, 1997; The Street Lawyer, 1998; The Testament, 1999; The Brethren, 2000; A Painted House, 2001; Skipping Christmas, 2001; The Summons, 2002; Bleachers, 2003; The King of Torts, 2003; The Last Juror, 2004; The Broker, 2005. The Innocent Man (2006), Playing for Pizza† (2007), The Appeal (2008) ,The Associate (2009) The Confession (2010), Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer (2010), The Litigators (2011), Theodore Boone: The Abduction (2011), Calico Joe† (2012), The Racketeer (2012), Theodore Boone: The Accused (2012), Sycamore Row (2013),Theodore Boone: The Activist (2013)
Nonfiction: The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, 2006.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.