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John Grisham Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Jonesboro, Arkansas, 1955. Education: Mississippi State University, B.S. in accounting 1977; University of Mississippi, LL.D in 1981. Career: Practiced law, Southaven, Mississippi, 1981-91; member Mississippi House of Representatives, 1984-90.



A Time to Kill. New York, Wynwood Press, 1989; London, Century, 1993.

The Firm. New York, Doubleday, and London, Century, 1991.

The Pelican Brief. New York, Doubleday, and London, Century, 1992.

The Client. New York, Doubleday, and London, Century, 1993.

The Chamber. New York, Doubleday, and London, Century, 1994.

The Rainmaker. New York, Doubleday, and London, Century, 1995.

The Runaway Jury. New York, Doubleday, 1996.

The Partner. New York, Doubleday, 1997.

The Street Lawyer. New York, Doubleday, 1998.

The Testament. New York, Doubleday, 1999.

The Brethren. New York, Doubleday, 2000.


Film Adaptations:

The Firm, 1993; The Pelican Brief, 1993; The Client, 1994; The Chamber, 1996; The Rainmaker, 1998.

Critical Studies:

John Grisham: A Critical Companion by Mary Beth Pringle. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.

* * *

John Grisham hit the best-seller lists as a kind of publishing phenomenon, a blockbuster novelist whose books are instant hits and are snapped up by Hollywood even before they hit the bookstores. Grisham writes a type of novel that might best be described as a "legal procedural." His books deal with the law and those who practice it. If, as surveys indicate, Americans are antilawyer, they are certainly not antilaw novel. Grisham and others have made the legal novel vastly popular with the American reading public.

There are probably two main reasons for Grisham's popularity among contemporary readers. First, Grisham invites his reader into the often confusing and arcane world of legal practice. He cuts through the "heretofores" and "whereases" to simplify law for the reader. He shows how the law works, how lawyers work, why the law sometimes doesn't work, and what's going on when we can't see legal workings. Furthermore, he does this with a page-turning style that is hard to resist for those curious about the legal system in this country.

Second, Grisham suggests to his readers that the law can be made to work for all of us, even neophytes, even in the face of huge companies with high-priced representation, even against overwhelming odds, even against government oppression. Grisham's protagonists are always underdogs. They may be law students (The Pelican Brief), brand new lawyers (The Firm, The Chamber, The Rainmaker), or practicing lawyers fighting against great odds (A Time to Kill, The Client). Whatever the situation, the message is powerful and seductive. Americans hold strongly and dearly the belief that we are all equal under the law and that all of us have a chance to win if our cause is right, never mind the reality of expensive attorneys.

One of Grisham's gifts is that he is able to make sympathetic to the reader even those characters who might ordinarily have no claim to those sympathies. In The Chamber, for instance, Grisham presents his readers with a character who deserves the death penalty, if indeed anyone ever has. He is a multiple murderer, an unrepentant racist—a virtual compendium of all that could possibly be wrong with a character facing capital punishment. Still, it would be the hard-hearted reader who could reach the end of this book and not feel sorry for the death of an old man who glories in a last gift of Eskimo Pies.

Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill, is probably his weakest, although that could be said of most first novels. He introduces plot lines and characters that he fails to develop sufficiently or to tie up neatly at the end. By his second book, The Firm, he has overcome those problems quite thoroughly. Grisham likes introducing involved plot lines and twists and weaving them into a fast-paced whole. One almost suspects that he considers complexity a personal challenge, taking it on in the way one might consider constructing a puzzle.

Although his novels are generally well edited and fairly seamless, The Chamber showed signs of a syndrome unfortunately common to blockbuster writers, one that sometimes appears after their first few novels. When writers become so valuable to their publishers that publishers are afraid to edit them, sloppiness in the minor aspects of editing may begin to pop out, and that is the case with The Chamber. Yet no such problems surface in The Rainmaker, the novel following The Chamber; perhaps the writer had been made aware of the editing lapses.

The Runaway Jury, with its plot concerning a tobacco-liability lawsuit, could not have been more well-timed when it appeared in 1996, as states sued tobacco companies for billions of dollars. The Testament focuses on a much more localized concern, and as with many another Grisham novel, the premise—a wealthy man sidesteps his greedy children and wives in his will to reward a stranger of good character—is hardly original; but, as is also characteristic of Grisham, his execution of the story is engaging. The book is also the most overtly spiritual work by Grisham, a devout Christian. By contrast, The Brethren offers the first Grisham anti-heroes, with hardly a major character that an audience is likely to cheer for. Absent are the typical underdog heroes, and in their place is a trio of crooked judges serving prison time, a ruthless presidential candidate, and a conniving CIA chief.

Overall, Grisham's work is well constructed, tightly plotted, fast paced, and, if undemanding, certainly exciting for the reader looking for a hard-to-put-down novel.

—June Harris

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