The Testament by John Grisham

riverboat looks black against the setting sun reflected in water
Boat goes where lawyer fears to go.

John Grisham 1999 best-seller The Testament is a courtroom drama with anacondas.

The novel opens with the dramatic suicide of  America’s 10th most wealthy man. While guys in suits line up to bicker and dicker to secure a chunk of Troy Phelan’s estate for—and from—Phelan’s obnoxious heirs, only Josh Stafford, who had drafted and shredded many wills for Phelan, knows none of Phelan’s ex-wives and their children will get a cent from his estate.

While stalling on reading Phalen’s last will as directed, Josh hauls soon-to-be-disbarred lawyer Nate O’Riley out of his fourth stay in an alcohol rehabilitation program and sends him to find the illegitimate daughter to whom Phelan left his fortune. She’s a missionary to primitive people in the Pantanal in western Brazil.

Before this trip, Nate’s idea of personal challenge was avoiding alcohol for 24 hours. Suddenly he has to cope with a plane crash in a thunderstorm, a boat trip up swollen rivers, and dengue fever.

As he so often does, in The Testament Grisham produces a surprise ending that’s so well prepared it shouldn’t be a surprise. And as always in a Grisham novel, there’s far more than just the story line to unpack.

The Testament by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1999. 435 p.
1999 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

Night on city street during snowstorm, pedestrian barely discernibleIn the first paragraph of The Street Lawyer, novelist John Grisham puts hot-shot lawyer Michael Brock into an elevator with a pungent homeless veteran who minutes later threatens to blow up Drake & Sweeney and its 800 lawyers.

The lawyers survive.

The homeless man does not.

Mike is shaken up by his first-ever encounter with a homeless person. He begins doing research into the causes and responses to homelessness. In the process, he stumbles upon information that shows his own law firm benefiting financially from dumping poor people on the streets.

Mike visits a free legal clinic for the homeless and is fascinated by what he sees. He only has to be asked once to come make sandwiches one weekend, and Mike decides to quit Drake & Sweeney to work with Washington DC’s homeless.

Grisham does all the things writers of crime novels are required to do—bring in bad cops, have his client beaten up, get him a new girlfriend—but he does them in muted ways so they don’t become the whole story.

The story ends predictably but plausibly for Mike, who matures a lot in a few months.

Grisham produces a fast-reading, intriguing tale that leaves readers with a lot to think about.

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1998. 348 p.
1998 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Partner by John Grisham

John Grisham’s A running man casts a long shadowThe Partner is a riveting mystery story with a knock-your-socks-off ending.

The novel opens with the kidnapping and brutal interrogation of Danila Silva in a remote Brazilian town.

Silva’s real name is Patrick Lanigan. A former partner in a Biloxi law firm, he supposedly burned to death in a horrible car accident six weeks before a fortune was stolen from the law firm’s off-shore accounts.

His captors have spent four years and $3.5 million finding him.

What did Lanigan do that makes finding him worth that expenditure of time and money?

The interrogation doesn’t reveal where the money went, but it does alert the FBI to Lanigan’s whereabouts. They move in.

Lanigan hires an old pal from law school, Sandy McDermott, to represent him.

By showing the burn marks from the interrogation, Lanigan manages to get himself confined in a hospital room instead of a prison cell.

Despite his unpopularity with his former law partners and his “widow,” Lanigan has a lot of people who like him. The judge at Lanigan’s first court appearance drops by his hospital room for pizza.

Lanigan has planned his caper well,  but Grisham’s plotting of The Partner is even better.

The Partner by John Grisham.
Doubleday. ©1997. 366 p.
1997 bestseller. 1st place (tie)
my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Runaway Jury

Close-up of carving on court house
Carved courthouse art.

John Grisham’s The Runaway Jury blends a mystery into a courtroom drama in a most unusual way: Readers know what’s happening and who’s doing it, but they don’t know why until the last minute why it’s being done.

The novel is set in contemporary (1990s) Biloxi, Mississippi, where a widow is suing tobacco companies for actual and punitive damages in death of her husband. Similar cases have been tried elsewhere, but juries in those cases did not agree on verdict.

Both sides know a decisive victory for the plaintiff would start a stampede of suits against the tobacco companies. Two teams of “the brightest legal minds and the largest egos in the country” are assembled to do battle.

Although both sides have done extensive pretrial investigation of the 194 potential jurors, neither side has been able to learn anything about Nicholas Easter, a 27-year-old clerk in a Computer Hut store.

Readers see the shenanigans of the courtroom adversaries and the mysterious behavior of Easter and Marlee. She’s a sexy blonde who calls the tobacco company’s lawsuit manager with advance information about what will happen in the next court session.

Grisham’s story is riveting and the historical detail is an education in itself. The insights for public speakers are priceless.

The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1996. 401 p.
1996 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Rainmaker

business-like engraved plaque says “The Rainmaker”
Cover is a visual joke.

The rainmaker of John Grisham’s novel of that name is law student Rudy Baylor. Rudy’s first job disappears even before he’s taken the bar exam, leaving him broke, homeless, and jobless in an already-saturated job market.

Fortunately, Rudy is a guy people want to help.

The owner of the place where Rudy tends bar part-time knows a shady lawyer who’s hiring.

An elderly widow Rudy met while giving free legal advice to senior citizens has an apartment he can rent cheaply.

And a couple he also met through his pro bono work want to sue the insurance company for refusing to pay for the bone marrow transplant that could save their son’s life.

Rudy isn’t stupid.  His law school courses taught him theory, but not what he needs to know. He’s immature and unprepared to practice law.

While Rudy gets on-the-job training in law, Grisham has some laugh-out-loud lines at Rudy’s expense, but he lets the lad learn about how to be a decent human being.

Unfortunately, Grisham also has Rudy fall for a woman whose husband abuses her. The love interest isn’t necessary and nothing about Kelly’s behavior suggests a good outcome for the couple.

It’s a minor misstep in an overall fine novel.

The Rainmaker by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1995. 434 p.
1995 bestseller #1; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Disclosure by Michael Crichton

Title and author's name are all that's disclosed on front cover
Inside the circle says, “A NOVEL.”

Michael Crichton’s novel Disclosure is not about disclosure. It’s about all kinds of deception.

Crichton sets his novel in the early 1990s in Seattle where DigiCom is developing a virtual reality device for information storage and retrieval. Tom Sanders, who has overseen the development of the Twinkle, hopes he’s up for promotion when DigiCom merges with educational publisher Conley-White, and Tom’s division is spun off into a separate company.

The day the merger is supposed to be announced, Tom learns the company is being restructured. Instead of being promoted, he will report to his ex-lover of a decade earlier, Meredith Johnson.

After a late-day meeting with Meredith, Tom finds himself accused of sexual harassment. He hires a lawyer and fights back, claiming that Meredith was the harasser.

Thus, Crichton sets up a story about sexual harassment with a male as the victim. For readers today, the edge is off that story.

What’s interesting today is what has not changed in those 30-plus years in employment law:  societal attitudes about women’s roles, the number of women in executive positions, the world of high technology manufacturing. Crichton’s observation remains true today:

“We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

Disclosure by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf ©1993. 397 p.
1994 bestseller #10; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Chamber by John Grisham

author, title, set in marble
Like marble, the law is inflexible.

John Grisham’s The Chamber is real as death and almost as irresistible.

In 1967, Sam Cayhall helped bomb the law office of a Mississippi civil rights activist. The lawyer’s two sons were killed in the blast.

Sam was tried for murder twice; both trials resulted in a hung jury. In 1979, he was tried a third time, convicted, and sentenced to death.

In 1990, Sam’s execution is weeks away when a young lawyer, Adam Hall, asks to work on the case.

When he was 16, Adam learned that he was Sam’s grandson. Adam’s father, Eddie Cayhill, had fled to California, changed the family’s name, and committed suicide.

Now Adam tries to keep his grandfather from the gas chamber, while he pieces together his family history.

Sam is not the easiest client to work with; Adam is inexperienced and cocky. As they count the days to the execution date, each gives up some of his pride.

However repellent they find Sam’s criminal past, readers will find it hard not to want to see him reprieved.

Grisham ends the story in the only way it could end, leaving readers to ponder the messes that people make of their lives and the impossibility of solving human problems by legal means.

The Chamber by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1994. 486 p.
1994 bestseller #10; my grade: A+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow

a $1000 bill in breast pocket of pin-striped suit
Love those pin-striped suits.

Scott Turow delivers Pleading Guilty as an unedited report dictated by Mack Malloy, an ex-cop turned lawyer, to his firm’s top management about their partner who disappeared along with $5.6 million.

That presentation lets readers find out about the crime and the characters in a manner that’s both shocking and, in retrospect, predictable.

Outside the courtroom, Bert Kamin, Mack’s partner at G&G, is caught up in sports betting with other macho guys who claim to have insider knowledge. Others of Mack’s associates in G&G have peculiarities that might mask unorthodox, possibly even criminal, behavior.

Mack and Emilia “Brushy” Bruccia, his associate and sex-partner, joke that their gossip is protected lawyer-client communication.

The first place Mack looks for Bert—the Russian Bath—he learns cops have already been there looking for a Kam Roberts, although the Bath pays the local watch commander to prevent such unpleasantness.

Who is Kam Roberts? And why are cops asking about him in Bert Kamin’s haunts?

Divorced, overweight, with an injured knee and booze-soaked psyche, Mack is about as attractive as Horace Rumpole and equally shrewd about crime. But unlike Rumpole, Mack is unlikely to appear in a second novel.

You’ll have to read Pleading Guilty to learn why.

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow
Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. ©1993. 386 p.
1993 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Vanished by Danielle Steel

cameo of child at center of gray and black dust jacket
The child is gagged.

Vanished is a totally atypical, can’t-put-down mystery from the queen of romance novelists, Danielle Steel.

The story is set in 1938 just after Kristallnacht in Germany and while the Lindbergh baby kidnapping was still fresh in American minds.

Marielle Patterson is the devoted mother of four-year-old Teddy, and dutiful wife of multi-millionaire Malcolm Patterson, for whom she had worked briefly as secretary. Both parents adore Teddy and are polite to each other.

Just hours after Marielle had accidentally run into her ex-husband at a church on the anniversary of the accident in which they lost their just-walking son and unborn daughter, Teddy is kidnapped from his bedroom.

Marielle’s ex-husband, Charles Delauney, is charged with kidnapping. Marielle doesn’t believe Charles could be the kidnapper, but all the evidence points to him.

When the case comes to trial, Marielle’s past marriage, divorce, and the mental problems after losing her children are made public. Malcolm blames Marielle for the kidnapping.

Without family or close friends, Marielle comes to rely on an FBI special agent for emotional support through an ugly trial in which the prosecutor tries to make it look as if Marielle is to blame for the kidnapping.

Steel wraps up the story in manner both hopeful and realistic.

Vanished by Danielle Steel
Delacourt Press. ©1993. 304 p.
1993 bestseller #6; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Dolores Claiborne, the novel

Woman peers down into well as the sun goes into full eclipse above her
It’s a solar eclipse.

Dolores Claiborne is a Stephen King novel for people who think they don’t like Stephen King novels. Its horrors all have human origins and no good deed goes unpunished.

On page one, Dolores Claiborne has already been advised of her rights. Dolores is thought to have killed her wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, for whom Dolores had worked since her teens.

The rest of the novel is a transcript of what Dolores tells to  the police chief and his deputy at Little Tall Island, Maine, and their stenographer.

Dolores freely admits that she killed her husband 29 years earlier during a solar eclipse. Although most people suspected her, no one could prove she did it.

Dolores says she didn’t kill Vera, although sometimes she would have liked to. Vera was a bossy, nasty, bitchy woman. After Dolores’s husband’s death, even her children didn’t want to live at home.

Dolores put up with Vera because there were few jobs available and she was used to Vera’s habits.  Over the years, the women battled their own demons and each other, finally seeming to reach an armed truce.

When Vera died, she left her estate, valued at $30 million, to Dolores, which is why Dolores is being questioned.

Dolores says, “Most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking, ©1992. 305 p.
1992 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni