From the messy desk of Paul Levine
From "A Time to Kill" and "The Firm" more than 20 years ago to "The Appeal," "The Associate," and "The Racketeer," John Grisham has been the number one bestselling author of legal thrillers.
He’s been praised for his storytelling, though most critics don’t toss bouquets of roses for his prose. But the man can weave a tale.
His themes are clearly defined. Corruption, greed, and untidy justice permeate his work. Large corporations and Big Money exert cruel power over the weak...until a lawyer (usually flawed) takes up the cause.
This rings a bell with me. Behind the judge’s bench in every Miami courtroom is the sign, "We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth." You can see the sign, barely, in this goofy publicity shot of me when I was flogging "To Speak for the Dead" many years ago.
My fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, examined the sign and cracked, "There oughta be a footnote. Subject to the truth being obfuscated by shady lawyers, overlooked by lazy jurors, and misstated by dunderhead judges."
But back to Grisham’s oeuvre. For a lot of people, "A Time to Kill," his first novel, was his best. A story of race, violence, and small town prejudices, it echoes with themes of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
But it was "The Firm" that rocketed Grisham to the top of the charts and spun off the hit Tom Cruise movie. A young attorney is seduced by the pay and perks at a Memphis law firm that is actually a front for the mob. Chaos and murder ensue.
Here are some other examples of his work that reveal Grisham’s underlying themes.
In "The King of Torts," a down-and-out public defender’s life changes quickly when a routine street killing leads to a conspiracy involving a huge drug company. Unlike our Supreme Court, Grisham doesn’t think corporations are people, too.
"The Partner" finds a lawyer-thief on the run. He stole $90 million from his firm and went into hiding. Then he’s caught, and his partners want revenge. Torture is on the menu.
"The Pelican Brief" finds two Supreme Court justices murdered in order to fix a case. Justice, as I said earlier, is untidy indeed.
Grisham’s latest legal thriller, last year’s "The Racketeer," involves a disbarred, imprisoned lawyer who tells the FBI he knows who gunned down a federal judge and will talk if they cut him a deal. (It’s probably the only commercial fiction ever written about Federal Rule 35, which allows for sentence reduction in return for "substantial assistance" in prosecuting someone else.
In a few weeks, "Sycamore Row" will be released. Going back to his roots, Grisham hauls out the hero of "A Time to Kill," Jake Brigance, who returns to the Ford County courthouse and a racially charged trial.
As promised, here are Grisham’s books in order. (I omitted the Theodore Boone Young Adult stories and some non-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)
The King of Torts (2003)
The Bleachers (2003)
The Last Juror (2004)
The Broker (2005)
Playing for Pizza (2007)
The Appeal (2008)
The Associate (2009)
The Confession (2010)
The Litigators (2011)
Calico Joe (2012)
The Racketeer (2012)
Sycamore Row (2013)
Yes, the man is prolific. Just typing all those titles wore me out.
I'll leave you with a quote from young lawyer Rudy Baylor, a classic Grisham underdog in "The Rainmaker," who takes on a massive insurance fraud case against overwhelming odds.
"I'm alone and outgunned, scared and inexperienced, but I'm right."