Ladies and gentlemen, bookworms and bibliophiles, adjudicators of literary justice: it is a stark position in which you now find yourselves. Before you stands a genre of fiction so dominated by one author, indeed it has been asserted that legal drama has become synonymous with the name in question, that of the defendant Mr John Ray Grisham, Jr. I am entrusted, on behalf of Author Attic, with the responsibility of accounting for this state of affairs. I shall present the following interpretation as evidence, subjecting the defendant’s works to the utmost scrutiny and providing a thorough case for your consideration.
It is my goal that, in presenting the Top Ten John Grisham Books, you will find some means to pass well-reasoned and rational judgment on these works that have so impacted a literary genre.
It is appropriate that this investigation should begin at the number 10 spot with Grisham’s first published novel, A Time to Kill. In the fictional southern town of Clanton, Mississippi, two white men rape and assault a 10-year old black girl. What follows is a whirlwind of reaction and counter-reaction, the harshest of which is carried out by the young girl’s father against the assailants in a violent act of retribution. A loyal young defence attorney attempts to salvage the remnants of what is right and wrong among the ashes of justice, with the book reaching a crescendo of violence before the trial comes to an emotional conclusion.
Grisham fuels this novel using his own courtroom experience, and one can clearly see the inspiration drawn from themes present in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. A Time to Kill contains edgy themes, but they are played out in a fairly predictable manner; it is a powerful work, but perhaps a bit simple compared to later releases. What Grisham does display most effectively, however, is the ability to manipulate events and characters in compelling conflicts and interactions, and it is this facet of his writing that makes A Time to Kill a much-recommended title.
“Let all ye who search for justice draw nigh and get screwed.”
In contrast, The Brethren is about as hackneyed and predictable as this week’s national lotto numbers. Set predominantly in Trumble, a fictional minimum-security federal prison in Florida, three former judges have established a system of what could possibly resemble justice (if one doesn’t look too closely), regulating the affairs of the other inmates. The Brethren, as they are known, are also running a blackmail ring from inside the prison with the help of a crooked lawyer – a scam that, unfortunately, hooks the worst possible victim and least low-key figure in the entire country.
The Brethren is a testament to Grisham’s ability to produce compelling event structures, while demonstrating how incorrect it is to pigeonhole legal fiction as stale and limited to the courtroom. It is a work with intriguing themes, not the least of which involves the sexual nature of The Brethren’s blackmail scam and some very interesting allusions to similar issues in contemporary politics. The Brethren also features several different protagonists, none of whom actually fit the schema of being a good person; that they are no less likeable despite this fact can be attributed to excellent character writing. Ultimately, this book proves that crime does pay, but is executed such that the reader doesn’t actually mind.
Exhibit C, and number 8 on the list, is Grisham’s 1997 thriller The Partner, possibly the most well written book to feature no likeable characters whatsoever. Okay, perhaps that was a bit exaggerated; The Partner follows a young Mississippi lawyer Patrick Lanigan as he attempts to disappear with dirty money stolen from equally dirty sources, and start a new life in South America. When the bad guys eventually track him down, he gets tortured; when the FBI come and save him, he gets prosecuted – not the best of outcomes, to be sure. In order to save his neck, and his fortune, Patrick must become the proverbial Puppet Master, initiating a course of actions that muddy the water for everyone involved, and leave the reader wondering just who will come out on top.
As the main protagonist, Patrick Lanigan is a compelling character, but controversial: some will root for him, others will root for his downfall. He is an underdog who appears entirely too smooth at certain points in the story, perhaps to the detriment of his likeability. Where The Partner does succeed, as is becoming a common theme, is with Grisham’s storytelling; he manages to slowly unravel the back story throughout the unfolding of events, making this a real page-turner in the truest sense of the words. The ending is surprising, especially given the context of the rest of the story, and whether you love it or hate it, it’s definitely one to remember.
“I was tired of secrets, tired of seeing things I was not supposed to see. And so I just cried.”
Caution: this isn’t a legal thriller. A Painted House is Grisham’s first venture away from his bread and butter, and the reason it is placed at number 7 on his top book list is because it is such a pleasant surprise. Told from the perspective of 7-year old Luke Chandler, a southern boy growing up on a cotton farm, the story follows his experiences through harvest season and focuses on his interactions with family, neighbours, and the hired help. Grisham weaves a believable and intricate backdrop, consisting of the details and routines of your typical southern boy growing up on a farm, while at the same time piercing the cloth with harsh events that change the way Luke sees the world and people around him.
A Painted House gives Grisham a chance to demonstrate his narrative ability outside of his traditional comfort zone. This book is not as fast-paced and relentless as the legal books tend to be; this benefits both the reader and the author, as the former is able to immerse him/herself in the well-developed and intricate storytelling of the latter. Grisham accomplishes what all good storytellers aim to do: he invites you to become invested in the characters and events – a valuable talent, regardless of the genre.
“You advised him not to get a lawyer, giving as one of your reasons the opinion that lawyers are a pain in the ass. Gentlemen, the pain is here.”
Grisham brings us back to the political ballroom at number 6 with The Client, a return to the fast-paced world of mafia manoeuvring and the legal quickstep. Sticking with a theme of child witnesses, a young protagonist again holds the key to the overarching conflict, namely the whereabouts of a significant mafia murder victim. This time it’s 11-year old Mark Sway, who suddenly finds himself caught between the mafia and the FBI, neither being particularly well known for asking nicely. Mark is represented by the surprisingly well-intentioned (for a John Grisham character) Reggie Love, an inexperienced lawyer and the young boy’s only defence against a world that suddenly seems to have lost all sense of parental instinct.
As a child protagonist, Mark will undoubtedly be attractive to some, in a young Indiana Jones kind of way, but he does lose some credibility in just how adult he appears at times. The Client is quite straightforward in terms of standard protagonists and antagonists: there are clearly good guys, bad guys, and guys, however well intentioned, that consistently interfere with Mark and Reggie, and all of the characters have fairly straightforward motivations for taking the course of actions that they do. However, the result of this is not a dull, trudging storyline; rather, the cast sprint through conflicts at breakneck speed, and the reader will find him/herself willingly running alongside them.
“I’m alone and outgunned, scared and inexperienced, but I’m right.”
The Rainmaker is what you get when John Grisham plays to his strengths, dotting his Is, crossing his Ts, and executing a textbook legal thriller. This book follows a different kind of hero from some featured above; Rudy Baylor isn’t particularly bright, motivated, or experienced, and is far from flashy. Forced to take on some less-than-savoury prospects upon graduation from Memphis State Law School, Rudy is the least appropriate lawyer to stumble upon the mother of all insurance fraud cases, especially considering A) he’s never been to trial before, and B) the company he is suing has one of the country’s best defence attorneys standing against him. This is a heart-rending underdog story, which by the end leaves the reader questioning just who the law is there to protect.
This title leaves no doubt as to the ability of Grisham to write engaging characters and clever dialogues. Unlike some of his other publications, The Rainmaker is quite courtroom based, dealing with legal avenues and defences that some of the more flashy titles do not deal with in-depth. The Rainmaker is a far less fanciful book: there’s no mafia, murder, crooked politicians, or wild fleeing of justice. This is a gritty, entirely too realistic book which may leave some readers more emotionally affected than they might expect.
Grisham again shows his flexibility, even within a genre that, from the outside, looks relatively restrictive; after all, there are only so many ways one can dramatize the courtroom, right? Apparently not: as is proven in The Runaway Jury, even the administrative aspects of legal practice can provide the backdrop for thrilling conflict and conspiracy. The widow of a lung cancer victim attempts to file against a giant tobacco corporation in a lawsuit that features as much action behind the scenes as in the courtroom. Someone approaches Rankin Fitch, a pro-smoking trial ‘consultant’, claiming to be able to guarantee him a dismissal based on juror manipulation. Grisham provides a viewpoint both from within the infiltrated jury as well as from the outside, slowly drawing the reader into the midst of the entangled web before revealing the surprising truth in a shocking conclusion.
The Runaway Jury is another very character-focused book; the reader will again have a very atypical, nonstandard relationship with both the antagonist and the protagonists. This will probably be further affected by the heavy anti-smoking themes, which can get a bit preachy at times, but is nonetheless a controversial and polarizing issue that most people, in one way or another, deal with on a daily basis. The book does not proceed at breakneck speed, but neither is it a slow-burner; Grisham has produced an intriguing work that builds on clever dialogue and character manipulation and culminates in an effective climax.
The Testament is half-legal drama, half-action adventure, as Grisham takes lawyer Nate O’Riley and drops him in the middle of the Brazilian jungle in an unlikely quest to find the long lost heir to a billionaire’s fortune. Just out of rehab, Nate now has to deal with wealthy recluse Troy Phelan’s entirely unhappy extended family, right after the billionaire cut them out of his will and subsequently committed suicide before their very eyes. Phelan left his fortune to his illegitimate daughter who has forsaken all worldly goods and is living with indigenous tribes in the depths of the Brazilian wilderness. Nate has to fight a war on two fronts, finding this daughter and persuading her to take the money while protecting the recently deceased Phelan’s last actions against a swarm of legal suits from the other family members.
This is a very fast-paced release, but slightly divergent to what is considered Grisham’s usual style. The author’s strengths are present in The Testament, but played out here in a slightly different context; most of the eggs are out of the basket within the first few chapters, so there’s less suspense throughout the book as compared to the true legal thrillers, though the end does feature a nice twist. The Testament is a more feel-good publication, with introspective morals and compelling character writing (especially the ever-sardonic Nate). That Grisham is able to play to his strengths successfully in a different framework is what makes this book so enjoyable.
Considered one of his best works, it should not come as a surprise that The Pelican Brief places so highly at number 2. We’re back in the realm of political intrigue, as two incongruous Supreme Court Justices are disposed of within the same 24-hour period, with no one able to figure out the motivation behind the killings… no one except (of course) our heroine Darby Shaw, a second-year Tulane University Law School student, whose lucky guess turns out to be unfortunate for the immediate well-being of herself and anyone standing too close to her. As one might expect, the orchestrator of the murders gets wind of Darby’s exposition, and like any reasonable person attempts to extinguish her before any further damage can be done. What follows is one-part legal manoeuvring and two-part assassin dodging, as Darby attempts to expose the truth while guarding her back.
The reason this book should be regarded so highly is due to Grisham’s storytelling ability; while a high standard has been set in all the titles we’ve reviewed so far, the way Grisham unravels the plot for the reader goes above and beyond in The Pelican Brief. The protagonist actually figures everything out fairly early on, but she’s pretty sceptical of it herself, and a lot of that gets transmitted to the reader. As the story progresses, however, the reality of the situation gets slowly fed to her, piece by piece, until the reader is fully immersed in Darby’s struggle to survive. Grisham hooks the reader with excellent event structures, and the strength of character displayed by Darby Shaw draws the reader in even further.
The pinnacle of legal fiction, The Firm cast a shadow within the genre extending over the next two decades. His first bestseller, this book represents the archetypical ‘Grisham’ novel, and really ought to be read before any of his newer releases, let alone the 1993 Hollywood film on which it is based. Every aspect of this book represents the best of what it should be; the character interaction, dialogue, event structure, and scene setting; The Firm is a classic, rendered fallible only by the profession it attempts to reflect. Mitch McDeere is a Harvard graduate lawyer with a bright mind and a brighter future; straight out of law school he receives the job offer that most people can only dream of from Memphis-based law firm Bendini, Lambert & Locke. Cue at this point several suspicious deaths, an FBI investigation, and the involvement of the mafia, and suddenly Mitch is in a dance of death with more than one partner.
Compared to the rest of the entries, The Firm does not break any barriers, bend any rules, or stray well beyond the beaten path. What Grisham delivers, and what takes this book to number 1 on this list of the best John Grisham Books is pure, raw storytelling prowess. The plot is extremely gripping and laden with suspense, both realistic and fanciful at appropriate moments; the characters are likewise superhuman when they need to be, yet realistic enough to create some attachment on the part of the reader. The plot progresses comfortably at first, rising to a thrilling crescendo at the climax when potential conflicts materialize. This book is a classic, representing all the plaudits and praise Grisham has received over the years in its 500 pages of pure storytelling gold.
In the preceding account, I have attempted to provide you with an account of the works attributed to the defendant, and an interpretation thereof; I urge you all to take the time and assess the character of the defendant through the character of these works. If nothing else, it is my hope that you be able to come to a conclusion concerning the role of Mr John Grisham, and his impact on the world of legal fiction, and that in doing so all credit be duly given where said credit justly lies.