Revisiting the king of legal thrillers

John Grisham

John Grisham: past his best?

With no reading material before a long flight I picked up a John Grisham potboiler in the San Francisco airport without much enthusiasm. It was the mid 1990s, the book was The Pelican Brief and, to my surprise – because Grisham was being hyped all over the place then– I thoroughly enjoyed it, while being aware that possessing such a novel would cause several noses to be looked down.

As with wine and antiques’ circles, there are many snobs around in the book-reading world, though they would perhaps say they are simply more discerning readers. Each to his or her own; there’s no cause to sneer at Mills and Boon fans, for example – at least they’re reading.

And weren’t the majority of contemporary readers of Austen, Dickens, Doyle and Hardy simply popular fiction readers who liked a good tale well told? 

After I devoured The Pelican Brief, I proceeded to gobble up all of JG’s wordy legal thrillers. The Painted House ended the run; I hadn’t read the jacket notes. It was a rambling sentimental tale of bygone Americana. Where were the hotshot lawyers? Where were the big showcase trials?

Something changed with Grisham at that point. Maybe his publishers urged him to go in other directions, maybe he urged himself. 

Leaving the legal world behind – his specialist area – may have won a few fans but must have lost many more. And then even his courtroom-based output began to take a twee moralistic tone with humble downhome country folk fighting those ugly, hard-hearted corporations. I bailed out.

King of TortsBut a recent unexpected hospital stay in New Zealand brought me back. I had nothing but a dull Maigret novel with me when the mobile hospital library (a trolley loaded with about 80 books, about half by Dick Francis) made a welcome visit.

Two Grishams presented themselves – The Pelican Brief (natch) and The King of Torts. I chose Torts. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before. Having completed it, I still can’t remember.

But one thing I did learn  – after an interval of about 10 years, I’m over JG.

The King of Torts is an entertaining tale but it’s flabby and overwritten. Grisham writes well in his genre but he suffers from verbosity. Back in the 90s I was entertained by the detailed  descriptions of luxury yachts, fast cars, lavish dinners and private planes. This time round I found myself skimming bits. Millions and billions of dollars piled up in various tort actions until the figures became simply symbolic.

And those tort cases were essentially like Hitchcock’s McGuffins – devices to drive an otherwise simple story, in this case a moral tale about greed and consequences, pride before a fall – a very old theme.

Grisham has legions of loyal fans. Anything with his name on it will sell. I’ll pass for a while but maybe one day, while idling in airport bookshop, I might pick up his latest paperback and feel the magical pull once again.

About Edward Colley

A lifetime working with words and I'm still moved by them – or rather by what good writers can do with the slippery monkeys. A book can be a refuge, an escape, an adventure, a laugh ('I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.'), a heart-breaker (poor Tess!) ... I can't imagine life without a book (or two) on the go. My favourite read, by a mile, in the past 12 months: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. An epic masterpiece. Runner-up: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. Hefty but not heavy.

Posted on March 16, 2019, in American authors, Crime and thrillers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thanks! I have never tried any of his yet, so sounds like The Pelican Brief would give a good glimpse

  2. I know what you mean about being pulled in my famous books. I assume I won’t like them, and then often, to my surprise, I really enjoy reading them! No shame in that, I always encourage people to read, no matter what it is; to each his own. I’ve read only a few Grisham, but too bad he’s lost his lustre 🙂

  3. I’ve only managed to read one of the legal thrillers – can’t remember which – but I did enjoy Camino Island which is of a different genre, still a thriller but without the legal stuff.

    My first encounter with Grisham was his short story Skipping Christmas which I bought as a gift for my father some 20 years ago, and snuck a read before I wrapped it. It’s the not very serious but highly entertaining tale of an all-American middle-aged couple who decide to save money by not ‘doing’ Christmas at all, and to use the proceeds to go on a New Year cruise instead. Well, events and the season of good cheer inevitably catch up with them… This story placed Grisham in my mind as someone who can spin a good yarn, but even so, I haven’t yet felt tempted to grapple with any more of his legal novels.

  4. I read one or two of his books — The Firm for sure, maybe The Pelican Brief. Legal thrillers have never been a big draw for me. As far as I recall, the movie adaptations were good.

  5. Oh, I hope you wouldn’t give up JG, yet! His are always up and down, but you’ll find some gems if you’re patient and selective enough. My favorite is The Chamber and The Testament. And don’t forget his most famous one: Time to Kill.

    • No I won’t give up on him! I’ve not read Time to Kill because I didn’t rate the film too much. Maybe I should give it a go.

  6. Yes, I can remember liking a couple of Grishams and then being totally over it. Did he change, or did I? I don’t know…

  7. I know what you mean about the change in focus, but I’ve heard some very interesting things about his work to expose the corruption of the American criminal justice system and the class-issues which are too often swept under the proverbial rug. He’s quite often a guest on literary podcasts and I’ve heard quite a few but don’t remember details about the cases he has presented/discussed.

    All I’ve read in recent years (though, like you, I gobbled up those early thrillers) are essays and short pieces, so I’m not commenting on the quality of the later work myself, but I wonder whether he might not still be a very fine storyteller but, perhaps, less concerned with the writing and tight crafting that used to hook us in so dramatically? But, then, we do change as readers too, so maybe we were just more easily thrilled back then? 😀

  8. My Grisham journey is remarkably similar – but after The Painted House I never went back. Thought it was awful. Someone don’t think am likely to be tempted back any time soon!

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