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 Burden of Proof

Gold type picked out with red on black background substitutes for art
Legal story is artless.

Scott Turow’s  The Burden of Proof is a novel about the people—lawyers, judges, cops, and clients— who facilitate or impede the administration of justice.

Alejandro “Sandy” Stern arrives home from a business trip to find his wife has committed suicide.

Sandy seems to be the only person shocked.

Sandy’s major client, Dixon Hartness, is the proprietor of a commodities trading firm who is routinely in trouble with federal regulators. He’s in deep trouble now: Federal prosecutors suspect he has been using his insider knowledge and possibly clients’ funds to make a killing in futures trading.

Sandy has reasons to worry. Dixon is not only his sister’s wife, but the employer of his daughter’s husband. And Sandy’s wife wrote Dixon a check for nearly a million dollars just before her suicide.

Sandy solves all the mysteries, not because he’s such a smart lawyer, but because people trust him. Even if Sandy works for disreputable clients, he personally is an honorable man.

I found Burden of Proof impossible to put down. The story’s financial and legal issues are as timely as the morning’s news. Besides that, Turow’s characters are such believable people that you feel you’d recognize them if you met them on the street.

The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow
Farrar Straus Giroux. 1990. 515 p.
1990 bestseller #3; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Just Live by Faith That Innocence Wins Out

In his earlier bestseller The Prodigal Judge, Vaughan Kester showed his talent for bringing out the best in flawed characters. In The Just and the Unjust he has several flawed characters with which he explores how people are judged by the choices they make.

Young Jack North has blown through close to $20,000 by keeping too much company with Andy Gilmore, whose rooms are the local gambling parlor. Jack has also come close to getting sexually involved with his friend Marshall Langham’s wife.

Jack determines to leave Mount Hope and start over,  hoping to redeem himself enough to one day win Elizabeth Herbert. He gets only as far as Chicago when the local sheriff invites him to return to answer some questions.

murder victim is discovered.
Murdered!

Within three months, Jack is in jail on a murder charge.

Jack is both innocent and naif. He thinks because he’s innocent, it’s impossible for him to be convicted.

With the notable exception of the prosecuting attorney, who people appear to dislike on general principles, the best of Kester’s characters have their flaws, the worst their good points. Readers will have no doubt whom they should cheer for, but they’ll feel bad for the also-rans.

Unlike Jack and the police, readers know who committed the murder and why. They are privy to the secrets of those who could have proven Jack’s innocence and didn’t. They see the real villian of the novel get away scot free. In spite of all their insider knowledge, readers are kept on the edge of their chairs to the last page by the possibility that Jack might hang for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Just and the Unjust
by Vaughan Kester
Illustrated by M. Leone Bracker
1912 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg E-book #14581
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Daughter of Silence is not golden

Daughter of Silence opens with Anna Albertini shooting the mayor of San Stefano to death at noon before turning herself in to police.

There’s no doubt Anna is guilty of murder. The only question is whether mitigating circumstances should be considered in her sentencing.

In a plot reminiscent of Robert L. Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, Morris L. West follows Anna’s defense team as they probe for soft spots in the law.

Carlo Rienzi is the handsome defense attorney hoping to make his name with the case, Peter Landon the equally handsome forensic psychiatrist hoping to boost his career with the case.

The courtroom drama is offset by bedroom drama in the small San Stefano community. Carlo is jealous of his unfaithful wife. Both Carlo and Valeria resent her father, in whose law firm Carlo works. Ascolini is a great man to his law students, a nasty piece of work to his family.

Landon, meanwhile, has fallen for artist Ninette Lachaise who once had an affair with Valeria’s current lover.

The novel’s ending is predictable. The characters, while fascinating, are people you’d just as soon forget.

The real mystery in Daughter of Silence is why somebody didn’t murder all the characters: it wasn’t for lack of motive.

Daughter of Silence
By Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1961
275 pages
1961 bestseller # 8
My Grade: B-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Joy Street Lives Up to Its Name

When Emily Thayer tells her family that she is going to marry Roger Field, they tell her he will never set the world on fire. That’s just  fine with Emily. She wants the world “peaceful and pleasant and safe.”

Emily gets her wish.

Roger is predictable and their marriage happy. In the years before and during World War II, Roger rises in his law firm by dint of hard work rather than brilliance. Together Roger and Emily expand their acquaintance beyond Beacon Hill society to Boston’s immigrant community, represented in Roger’s firm by a token Jew, a token Irishman and a token Italian.

David, Brian, and Pell, the “new Boston” lawyers, are vivid and vigorous characters who introduce Roger and Emily to facets of life they hadn’t known existed.

And  Roger and Emily surprise themselves by discovering new facets of their own personalities.  The plot grows organically out of those  personalities.

Even though Emily thinks herself capable of an affair, in imitation of her impressive grandmother,  readers realize a grand passion is not Emily’s style. Emily is believable in part because she remains true to her essential personality.

In Joy Street, Frances Parkinson Keyes gives readers a story that, like Emily’s world, is peaceful and pleasant and safe.

Joy Street
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Jullian Messner, 1950
490 pages
1950 bestseller #2
My Grade B+
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni