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

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

The Client by John Gresham

gold medallion bears words “The Client” and image of blind justice holding scales
Justice is blind. Lawyers are dumb.

The central character of John Grisham’s 1993 bestselling legal thriller The Client is 11 years old and about three decades more streetwise than all the adults in the novel.

Here’s the story: Mark Sway and his younger brother witness the bizarre suicide of an attorney whose client had murdered a U.S. Senator. Before killing himself, the attorney tells Mark where the mob buried the body.

While his mother stays with his brother, who’s being treated for traumatic shock, Mark retains a lawyer who specializes in helping kids caught in the legal system.

Police, FBI, and the federal prosecutor put pressure on Mark to tell what they’re sure he knows, while the mob try to make sure Mark can never tell anything to anybody again.

Grisham’s rip-snorting legal thriller provides the all the required threats, wiretaps, chases, murders, and explosions to keep readers on the edge of their seats until they read the last page.

Only then will they realize Grisham played them for suckers.

Dear reader, not all bad guys are stupid jerks. Nor are all police, FBI, and juvenile protection workers stupid jerks. And there just might be a doctor or lawyer Mark’s intellectual equal, although his attorney, Reggie Love, is probably not that person.

The Client by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1993. 422 p.
1993 bestseller #2; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Pelican Brief, a novel

Shadows of a man and a pillar against a marble wall
Whose is the shadow?

Although John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief is described as a legal novel, it reads like an Ian Fleming–Stephen King cross.

The plot is about an attempt to pack the Supreme Court with justices who will be favorable to a new Louisiana oil drilling operation that will mean billions to a secretive donor to the Republican president and extinction to the Louisiana brown pelican.

In a single evening, a professional hit man kills the court’s oldest justice, a liberal, and the court’s youngest justice, a conservative. The FBI is baffled. What reason could anyone have for killing that pair of justices?

Law student Darby Shaw spends a couple days in the library and whips out a cui bono analysis. Her law prof/lover gives her “pelican brief” to a friend in the federal government, who passes it on.

Suddenly the prof is dead and assassins are after Darby.

Darby contacts a Washington Post reporter; together they fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

The bad guy who manipulated the president gets his comeuppances.

Darby and the reporter go off to the Virgin Islands together.

And the President is left practicing his putting in the Oval Office.

The whole thing’s too implausible for fiction.

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1992. 371 p.
1992 bestseller #2; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Firm by John Grisham

Man with briefcase climbs marble wall bearing sign THE FIRMJohn Grisham’s 1991 bestseller The Firm is a legal thriller as irresistible as it is implausible.

Headhunters from a very exclusive law firm specializing in tax work recruit Michael McDeere with a financial package he can’t refuse.

Mitch and wife, Abby, move to Memphis, knowing he’s expected to work 60-80 hours in a normal week, more during tax season. The job is worse than either expects and in ways they don’t expect. The secrecy, security measures, and loyalty requirements begin to threaten their marriage.

Mitch notices that five lawyers who had worked for the firm died in suspicious circumstances.

When a man identifying himself as an FBI agent tries to recruit him to give insider information, the firm’s management says it’s a government attempt to get clients’ confidential income information.

In a secret meeting, the FBI director personally tells Mitch a different story.

The story races to a thrilling, big-screen worthy climax.

It’s only the morning after that readers will realize they were suckered into not noticing that no one working the hours Mitch is supposedly working without the firm noticing a fall-off in his performance could possibly have engineered the outcome Grisham presents.

That morning-after realization is a sign of a superb story-teller.

The Firm by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1991. 421 p.
1991 bestseller #7; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni