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Tom Chaney: John Grisham - back on track

Of Writers and their Books: John Grisham -- back on track is a review of The Appeal. This column first appeared 17 February 2008
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Sue Grafton at "T"

By Tom Chaney

John Grisham -- back on track

My favorite writer of legal thrillers is home again with The Appeal [Doubleday, 2008]. In the last couple of years John Grisham wandered off the beaten path of legal fiction with a true crime tale The Innocent Man and the delightful story of Italian football - the American variety, not soccer - Playing for Pizza.


Now, Grisham's twenty-first book is set back in his familiar home territory of Mississippi. The Krane Chemical Company had been dumping toxic waste in a rural Mississippi county known as cancer county, Mississippi. The Appeal opens with a jury awarding a 41 million dollars verdict for the plaintiff Jeanette Baker whose son and husband died of cancer caused by the defendant.

Baker's lawyers, husband and wife team of Wes and Mary Grace Payton, have bankrupted themselves in the pursuit of justice for their client. They have lost house and fine cars; resorted to a college slum apartment; and borrowed half-million from an uneasy banker in the pursuit of justice.

At trial's end the plaintiffs are faced with a lengthy appeal by a defendant who vows never to pay. Mr. Trudeau, owner of a majority of Krane stock, is adamant. "I swear to you, it will never happen. Not one dime of our hard-earned profits will ever get into the hands of those trailer park peasants. . . . If I have to bankrupt it [Krane] or break it into fifteen pieces, I swear to you on my mother's grave that not one dime of Krane's money will ever be touched by those ignorant people."

And the race is on between financial unequals, and Grisham is off on another legal tale which kept me up for most of one night and away from less pleasant tasks for most of the next day. The main trouble with a Grisham book is that it is only about 300 some odd pages. I could take 600 without batting an eye.

Grisham is not a Hemingway as some would cast him. I think more of Upton Sinclair. What Sinclair did for the food we eat and the meat packing industry in The Jungle, Grisham does for the legal trade.

In earlier novels he has written about trial lawyers -- their virtues and nigh criminal flaws. One might think at first that The Appeal

Trudeau watches the stock of Krane drop more than eighty percent of its value. He becomes the first man to lose more than one billion dollars in one day on the stock market. He sets out to rectify that by regaining his losses and plays havoc with the lawyers Payton, their client Baker and the tort system of Mississippi.

Trudeau buys a supreme court judge for the very bench before which the Krane case will come.

Of course the purchase is at more than arm's length -- well hidden from the view of the voters who will select the man who defeats the most liberal (and that not very) judge on the southern Mississippi circuit.

Trudeau's minions pick for defeat a divorcee, Shelia McCarthy. The fact that Judge McCarthy is a middle of the road justice with a clear sense of the difference between personal belief and the demands of the law becomes irrelevant. They select a small-town lawyer Ron Fisk whose politics are slightly left of Attila the Hun and who is able to speak to the church folk about godless medical patients, greedy consumers and their shady lawyers.

Of course Fisk wins and rules in case after case as his buyers intend. As the climax of the story approaches, Fisk's son is injured by a defective product and a medical error. The Krane Chemical case is on his desk at the time.

Grisham is a fine story teller. He is master of suspense, of the intricacy of plot and character. If I have one complaint it is that his characters spring to life full blown. We learn more about them as the novel moves along, but it is not a process of growth as of revelation. If judge Fisk is different from lawyer Fisk it is a matter not of development, but of different camera angles.

This flaw keeps John Grisham out of the ranks of Hemingway or for that matter his fellow Mississippian, Faulkner, but it makes him more at home in the age of the movies.

During the 1990's some judged that he was the best selling author of the decade.

Right on!

The pleasure of his work is not diminished. The causes of his books are on the right side.



Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
THE BOOKSTORE
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
270-786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney
http://www.alibris.com/stores/horscave






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