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 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

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

Star by Danielle Steel

all-silver book jacket of Star sparklesDanielle Steel’s Star is an inspiring story of how Crystal Wyatt, a teenager from a northern California ranch with nothing but a gorgeous body and incredible voice, becomes a Hollywood star by overcoming daunting obstacles such as her own ignorance and her reluctance to sleep with her agent.

Around that story, Danielle Steel wraps a love-at-first-glance story, in which Crystal at 14 falls hopelessly in love with ex-Army officer, Spencer Hill, age 27.

Although equally smitten, Spencer does the sensible thing. He goes to law school, and marries the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.

Within days of their wedding, Spencer is recalled to service in Korea. As he waits to deploy, he meets Crystal again.

When he leaves for Korea, she’s carrying his child.

Spencer spends three years in Korea. For the last year, he’s so miserable he doesn’t write to anyone stateside.

Finally home, Spencer becomes a political figure in Kennedy White House.

Kennedy has been shot and buried when Crystal calls saying she’s been arrested for the murder of her agent.

Spencer leaves Washington, wife, and career to go to Crystal’s defense.

The novel ends with the obligatory happy ending of all Danielle Steel novels.

Star by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1989. 447 p.
1989 bestseller #4; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Presumed Innocent

A large red fingerprint is at center of “Presumed Innocent” book jacket
One bloody fingerprint

Scott Turow begins Presumed Innocent with Rusty Sabich, Kindle County’s chief deputy prosecutor, relating his usual opening speech to a jury in a criminal case.

It is their job, he always says, to determine “what actually occurred.”

When Carolyn Polhemus, another deputy prosecutor, is found raped and murdered, Randy’s boss, who is fighting for his job in a hot election, assigns the investigation to Randy.

The boss doesn’t know Randy had a brief affair with Carolyn, who dumped him a few months before.

When Raymond Horgan loses the election, the newly-elected prosecuting attorney acts swiftly to show voters they made the right choice.

Randy suddenly finds himself accused of Carolyn’s murder.

A lawyer himself, Turow uses his insider’s knowledge of the legal system to allow readers to get a close-up look through Randy’s eyes at the police, the prosecution, the defense team, and the judge.

We see even Randy’s most loyal supporters entertain suspicions about his guilt as as his case sometimes takes on the appearance of a political rivalry.

Readers, too, may wonder if Randy is guilty.

Turow gets details right without sacrificing a good story. He ends with Randy presenting his closing argument, not to a jury but to himself.

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ©1987. 431 p.
1987 bestseller #7; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

‘Rage of Angels’ could never end happily

Dark red rose drips blood on front dust jacket of “Rage of Angels” by Sidney Sheldon.
Blood drips from the rose.

In chapter one of Rage of Angels, after “interminable years of law school,” 24-year-old Jennifer Parker on her first day on the staff of the Manhattan District Attorney does something totally implausible for which she faces disbarment and even prison.

If you can get past that first chapter, the rest of Sidney Sheldon’s novel Rage of Angels is not bad. (Its shortcomings probably are less glaring in the 1983 TV miniseries.)

Jennifer is so in love with the idea of being a lawyer that she is persistent, hard-working, and willing to learn from her courtroom mistakes.

She’s not so good at learning from her bedroom mistakes.

Jennifer is infatuated first by lawyer Adam Warner, who keeps her from being disbarred.

She has a child by Adam, but she never tells him about Joshua for fear of ruining Adam’s presidential bid.

Later she becomes infatuated by Michael Moretti, a Mafia boss whose business operations are very badly hurt by Adam’s anti-corruption schemes.

Jennifer makes a mess of her personal life and refuses to take personal responsibility for the consequences.

Fortunately, Sheldon avoids the amateur writers’ mistake of pasting a happy ending on a story that couldn’t possibly have a happy ending.

Rage of Angels by Sidney Sheldon
W. Morrow. 1st ed. ©1980. 504 p.
1980 bestseller #3. My grade: C+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

A Far Country is reached via expediency

A Far Country is presented as the autobiography of a corporate lawyer, a “typical American” disciple of the doctrine of enlightened self interest.

Winston Churchill dealt the results of that doctrine in his 1913 bestseller. This time, however, he treats it from the perspective of the man who pursues expediency.


A Far Country by Winston Churchill

     MacMillan, 1915, 509 pages. 1915 bestseller #2. Project Gutenberg ebook #3739 My grade: C​+.


After his father’s death, Hugh Paret goes into law. He learns to use the law to manipulate, and thus becomes a behind-the-scenes political power.

Cartoon shows corporate interests running the US Senate
The Bosses of the Senate, a cartoon by Joseph Keppler from 1889

Hugh is opposed by Hermann Krebs, skillful advocate for the powerless, whom Hugh respects and despises.

Only his childhood friend Nancy seems to see Hugh’s career as a downward path, but she, too, chooses expediency.

Hugh marries a woman without ambition and soon regrets choosing Maude, though it draws him and Nancy closer than ever.

Maude keeps up appearances until the children are in their teens. Then she quietly takes them off to France just as Hugh is being considered for a run for the US Senate.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Hugh faces strong opposition from his old opponent, Krebs.

The plot of the novel is essentially a romance, albeit an unconventional one.

Churchill’s characters are believable enough to keep readers’ interest, but not believable enough to make the book memorable two weeks after reading it.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cass Timberlane has broken back, funny bits

Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives is really two books represented respectively by the title and subtitle.

In the main story, Cass Timberland, 41, an intellectually astute and emotionally dense Minnesota judge falls for a young girl with “fine ankles and a clear voice” who testifies in a negligence case.


Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives
by Sinclair Lewis

Random House, 1945. 390 pages.  1945 bestseller # 5. My Grade: B-.


When Jenny loses her job, Cass persuades her to marry him.

Without a job to go to, Jenny is bored. Cass encourages Jenny to go out with his buddy Bradd, whom he knows to be a womanizer.

What happens is predictable to everyone except Cass.

Cass is a hoot. He can recognize the stupidity of things he does when other people do them. What he doesn’t see is that dumb is dumb no matter who does it.

Sinclair Lewis sketches other characters — especially those in the other marriages —well enough to make them individuals, but not well enough to make them interesting. They add nothing to the main plot.

However, many of Lewis’s individual sentences are delightful. For example, Juliet Zago takes out a library book on “Freud’s translations from the original four-letter words.”

If you can be content with such small pleasures, you may enjoy Cass Timberlane.

As a novel, Cass Timberlane is a dud.

 

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The View from Pompey’s Head shows South and self

Cover of The View from Pompey's Head

The View from Pompey’s Head by Hamilton Basso is a novel about  New York City lawyer Anson Page whose work takes him back to his southern home.

Anson’s task is to determine whether a recently deceased editor for a publishing house embezzled a client’s royalties.

Anson’s law firm and their client assume his local connections will make it easy for him to find out why Mrs. Garvin Wales is sure Phillip Greene stole her husband’s royalties.

Anson assumes his local connections will make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to find out the truth.

Basso explores not only the murky process of growing up, but the Southern mindset, which Anson calls “Southern Shintoism.”

Basso takes his time telling the story, letting Anson delve into his memories of how things appeared to him more than 15 years before.

Anson’s memories are still vivid, some painfully so, but his understanding of their meaning has changed as he matured. Anson finally finds the solution to the mystery of the re-directed royalties through his adult understanding of Southern culture.

Though the novel moves with Southern summer speed, Basso keeps it moving without any extraneous elements. Without exerting himself to entertain, he keeps readers engaged, leading them effortlessly to understand the value of the South’s myths.

The View from Pompey’s Head
By Hamilton Basso
© 1954 by Hamilton Basso
Introduction by John W. Aldridge © 1985
Arbor House, 1985  [paper]
409 pages
1954 bestseller #8
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni