Liz Tells Frank What Happened In Every John Grisham Novel Ever

Dear Frank,

So sometimes, all it takes for an old passion to be renewed is something as simple as Netflix adding The Pelican Brief to its Watch Instantly service. The Pelican Brief AND The Client! What a glorious day that was.

You may not know this about me, Frank, but a large part of my early teens were spent obsessively reading John Grisham legal thrillers. They were my first independent taste of adult fiction — adult fiction that nonetheless can be read by a thirteen-year-old with a very bare-bones understanding of how sexytimes are supposed to work — and from them I gleaned my very shaky understanding of the court system and an odd fondness for jury duty.

But after watching all the Grisham Netflix had to offer and commencing a reread of The Runaway Jury (the only one of his novels I still own, mostly because it’s a weird “traveller’s edition” I bought during a trip to Europe in 1996) I’ve been reminded of why exactly I stopped reading Grisham novels after the age of fifteen — Grisham figured out one story he was good at writing, and while his early novels do enjoy some variation and creativity, he quickly fell into a pattern that has suffered from repetition.

In short, Frank, reading one Grisham novel means that you probably have a good grasp of every other novel, which is part of what made him such a popular author during the 90s. But really, it’s not so much that Grisham wrote the same book over and over again — it’s that many of his books, especially those written between A Time to Kill and The Brethern, take place in a very specific universe.

Here are just some of the Grishamverse’s qualities:

  • The legal system is imperfect and easily manipulated by clever men, usually via the filing of hundred-page briefs. Grisham is OBSESSED with mentioning how many pages a brief might be. The longer a brief, the more accomplished the lawyer.
  • Lawyers all work from 5:30 AM to 12 AM, at minimum, six days a week. Grisham is always very exact about how many hours a lawyer works, writing his 323-page briefs. In the Grishamverse, being a lawyer imbues you with super-human endurance, because being a lawyer (or even just a law student) is a profession for bad-asses.
  • Women, as a rule, are thin, perfectly dressed and beautifully coiffed — unless like Darby Shaw in The Pelican Brief, they’re running for their lives, in which case, their natural beauty cannot be concealed by whatever attempts at disguise they make. When not fulfilling an ingenue role, they might also be lean, scrappy fighters, but this is rarer.
  • Darby Shaw on the run! With the sportiest pigtails.

  • Occasionally, a woman in the plus-size department shows up. But she is generally ill-tempered and not to be trusted.
  • Alcohol is the crutch of weak men — but also a blissful escape from life’s troubles. I do not care to speculate on about Grisham’s own history with the bottle, but he writes about alcohol the same way Tina Fey writes about food — obsessively.
  • In every city in America, there are private security firms staffed with highly trained experts in subterfuge, wiretapping, car bomb-planting, and sorts of other black-ops operations. They’re flush with cash, never get caught, and are always available for hire by those with deep pockets.
  • And those pockets belong to corporations. Corporations are evil. SUPER SUPER EVIL. They kill people a lot. Probably Grisham’s most honest book, The Rainmaker, is most directly about this — the evil corporation in question is a health insurance company, an industry with a history of killing insured patients.
  • It is against firms or companies like this that The Little Guy must triumph. The Little Guy might be a lawyer fresh out of law school, or a eleven-year-old boy, or a lawyer fresh out of law school, or a female law student, or a lawyer fresh out of law school — what matters is that by the end of the novel, the Little Guy has gotten out of the scrape they’ve gotten into and is ready to live happily ever after.

  • This usually means a big cash bonus that they can use to fund their new life living cheaply on a Grand Cayman beach — Grisham’s version of happily ever after is very specific).

Frank, I should be honest and say that this does a bit of a disservice to Grisham, who did attempt to break out of the legal thriller format at a certain point in his career, writing about Christmas and baseball. Of course, he then went right back to the Grishamverse, where the rules are clear and everything eventually works out in the end.

Mocking Grisham is awfully easy, but I do still have a fondness for his particular brand of fiction; all the mockery in the world can’t discount the fact that for a good seven years, he wrote some cracking good reads (many of which made for decent films). I’m just glad to be older now, and to know the difference between a fun book — and a great one.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on April 5, 2011, in Books, Some Spoilers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I read legal briefs all day long, longer is not better.

  1. Pingback: Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Damages” « Liz Tells Frank What Happened In…

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