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The immensely popular author of thrillers in which the major characters are lawyers confronting dangerous situations, John Grisham is best known for his novel The Firm (1991), which centers around a recent Harvard Law School graduate who, after learning that his firm is heavily involved in organized crime, risks his life to help the Federal Bureau of investigation (FBi) indict his associates and their Mob bosses. it is no understatement that John Grisham has achieved the status of a genuine pop-culture icon. His works perennially spend months on the bestseller lists, have numbered more than 60 million in print across the world, and have been translated into thirty-one languages. Dubbed “grab-it-at-the-airport” novels, they have also made their author a multimillionaire.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
John Grisham was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, on February 8, 1955. During his childhood he and his family moved frequently so his father, an itinerant construction worker, could find employment. As a boy, Grisham didn’t dream of becoming a writer but rather a professional baseball player. However, he was an avid reader. Each time the family took up residence in a new town, Grisham would immediately go to the public library to get a library card. In 1967, when Grisham was twelve years old, the family moved to a more permanent home in Southaven, Mississippi. There Grisham enjoyed greater success in high school athletics than he did in English composition, a subject in which he earned a D grade.
After graduating from high school, Grisham attended Mississippi State University where he earned a degree in accounting. He went on to earn his law degree at the University of Mississippi, anticipating a career as a tax attorney, but quickly changed to criminal defense, which he found more interesting. Shortly after graduating from law school, Grisham married Renee Jones and returned to Southaven where he set up a small practice as a defense attorney.
Although his practice was successful, Grisham was not happy and grew restless. He switched to the more lucrative field of civil law and won many cases, but a sense of personal dissatisfaction remained. Hoping to somehow make a difference in the world, he entered politics with the aim of reforming the educational system in Mississippi, historically one of the nation’s poorest states. Running as a Democrat, he won a post in the state legislature in 1984. Four years later, he was reelected. After a total of six years in public office, Grisham, convinced that he would never be able to cut through the red tape of government bureaucracy in his effort to improve Mississippi’s educational system, resigned his post in 1990.
While practicing law, Grisham heard the gripping testimony of a young girl who was raped and left for dead. Unable to stop thinking about the case, Grisham began to wonder what would have happened if the victim’s father had killed the rapist and were put on trial. This ”what if …” situation became the impetus for his first novel. Set in fictional Clanton, Mississippi, A Time to Kill (1989) centers around the trial of a black Vietnam veteran who murders two white men after they brutally rape his ten-year-old daughter. The novel relates attorney Jake Brigance’s defense of the grieving father before an all-white jury as well as the numerous attempts made on Brigance’s life by the Ku Klux Klan. Writing his first novel, let alone publishing it, was no easy task for Grisham. Already working seventy hours a week in his law practice, Grisham had to work on his manuscript at five in the morning for three years.
Finishing the manuscript in 1987, Grisham next had to look for an agent. He was turned down by several before finally receiving a positive response. Agent and author encountered a similarly difficult time trying to find a publisher. Wynwood Press finally agreed to publish five thousand copies of the book, and Grisham received a check for $15,000. He purchased a thousand copies of the book himself, peddling them at meetings and libraries and giving many of them away to family and friends.
Already Writing the Next One
Despite the limited initial success of A Time to Kill, Grisham was not discouraged from trying his hand at another novel. In fact he had already started work on his second novel, the day after he finished A Time to Kill. The second time around, he decided to follow guidelines set forth in a Writer’s Digest article for plotting a suspense novel. The result was The Firm (1991), the story of a corrupt Memphis-based law firm established by organized crime for purposes of shielding and falsifying earnings. Recruited to the practice is Mitchell McDeere, a promising Harvard law graduate who is overwhelmed by the company’s apparent extravagance. When he runs afoul of the good guys, McDeere finds himself in seemingly endless danger.
Grisham was not as motivated when writing The Firm as he had been when composing A Time to Kill, but with his wife’s encouragement he finished the book. Before he even began trying to sell the manuscript, he learned that someone had acquired a bootlegged copy of it and was willing to give him $600,000 to turn it into a movie script. Within two weeks, Doubleday, one of the many publishers that had previously rejected A Timeto Kill, offered Grisham a contract. The novel was listed on the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year and sold approximately ten times as many copies as its predecessor. By the time the film version was released, there were more than 7 million copies of The Firm in print. This amazing success gave Grisham the means to build his dream house, quit his law practice, and devote himself entirely to writing.
In a mere hundred days, Grisham wrote his follow-up to The Firm. Another legal thriller, The Pelican Brief (1992) tells the story of a brilliant, beautiful female law student named Darby Shaw. When two Supreme Court justices are murdered, Shaw hypothesizes as to why the crimes were committed. Soon she is running for her life, while bravely continuing to investigate the conspiracy. In reviewing The Pelican Brief, some critics complained that Grisham had followed the premise of The Firm far too closely. Despite such criticism, Grisham was also praised for creating another exciting story. Made into a film starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts, The Pelican Brief enjoyed success comparable to The Firm, selling millions of copies.
Six months later, Grisham put together another bestseller, titled The Client (1993). This legal thriller focuses on a young boy who, after learning a sinister secret, turns to a motherly lawyer for protection from both the Mob and the FBI. Like The Firm and The Pelican Brief, the book drew lukewarm reviews but became a best seller and a major motion picture. For a time in the spring of 1993, after The Client came out and A Time to Kill was republished, Grisham was in the rare and enviable position of having a book at the top of the hardcover best-seller list and books in the first, second, and third spots on the paperback best-seller list. Grisham has acknowledged that his second, third, and fourth books were formula-driven. He also admitted to rushing through the writing of The Pelican Brief and The Client, which resulted in lower-quality books. Yet, he also complained that the critical community treats popular writers harshly.
A Novel a Year
With his fifth novel, Grisham departed from his proven formula and proceeded at a more leisurely pace. He took a full nine months to write The Chamber (1994), a book in which the ”good guys” and ”bad guys” are not as clearly defined as in his previous efforts. The novel tells the tale of Ku Klux Klansman Sam Cayhall, who is on death row for the murder of two young sons of a Jewish civil rights attorney. After languishing in prison for years, Cayhall is surprised by the arrival of his estranged grandson, Adam Hall. Hall, an attorney, sets out to reverse his grandfather’s death sentence, even though he considers Sam to be the family demon. The novel is a careful study of a family’s history, an examination of the relationship between lawyer and client, and a description of life on death row.
Grisham has continued writing a novel a year. He has realized greater success than most writers will enjoy in a lifetime. When not writing, Grisham spends time with his daughter Shea and son Ty. Grisham lives with his family, sharing time between one home in Mississippi and another in Charlottesville, Virginia. He also spends time devoted to philanthropic causes. In 2005 he and his wife started the Rebuild the Coast Fund organization to help Hurricane Katrina victims after the devastating hurricane destroyed much of the southern coast. He still loves baseball and is an avid fan of his son Ty’s team. Grisham serves as the local Little League commissioner and has built several ball fields on his property where kids can play.
Works in Literary Context
When Grisham began writing his first novel, he never dreamed that he would become one of America’s best-selling novelists and help create the new genre of ”legal thriller.” Yet, the appeal of books such as The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client has been so great that the reading public regularly buys millions of copies of his books, and nearly all of his novels have been turned into major motion pictures.
Grisham, along with lawyer-turned-writer Scott Turow, is credited with developing the legal thriller, a sub-genre of crime fiction. In legal thrillers, the action is narrated from the point of view of the lawyer, just as most crime fiction is narrated from the perspective of the police or detective. Differing from other crime fiction is the fact that the protagonist is a regular person, not a crime fighter equipped to face dangerous situations. However, upon uncovering truth and justice through intellectual investigation, the protagonist finds himself in peril, and in order to save himself or his clients, he must perform heroic deeds.
Many of Grisham’s works take place in the South. His first book, A Time to Kill, is set in a fictional Mississippi town. The Firm narrates the story of a lawyer in a high-powered Memphis law firm. And his novel The Chamber (1994) chronicles the family saga of a Mississippi family whose patriarch is awaiting execution on death row. Grisham’s work has traits of Southern Gothic literature with its wide cast of seedy, loathsome characters. Following in the footsteps of fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, Grisham reveals the sordid underbelly of Southern social issues such as racism and prejudice in the legal system through his literature.
Works in Critical Context
Although his novels are sometimes characterized as simplistic, lacking plausible plots and developed characters, Grisham is often praised for highly suspenseful, compelling narratives that display his extensive legal knowledge. Some critics have argued that Grisham displays considerable talent as a writer, maintaining that his characterizations are accurate and well developed and his dialogue arresting and realistic. Like a composer, he brings all his themes together at the crucial moment for a gripping, and logical, finale.
A Time to Kill
Upon its initial publication in 1989, A Time to Kill received very little critical attention, but the overwhelming success of The Firm sparked interest in Grisham’s first novel, which was then praised by critics as forceful, dramatic, and thought-provoking. Commentators cited Grisham’s legal expertise as well as his authentic portrayal of customs and values in the American South as some of the strengths of A Time to Kill. lt has been praised for its compelling plot, use of complex legal details, and commentary on such controversial topics as racism and vigilantism. A Time to Kill is now considered by some as the finest of Grisham’s novels.
Upon The Firm’s publication, several reviewers argued that Grisham had not attained a high art form, although it was generally conceded that he had put together a compelling and thrilling narrative. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Charles Champlin wrote that the ”character penetration is not deep, but the accelerating tempo of paranoia-driven events is wonderful.” The Library Journal noted that Grisham ”set a daringly high standard, one that his readers will hope he can reach again and again. Grisham is clearly able to captivate the reader with his blend of intriguing legal predicaments, high tension, and unexpected plot twists.
- Best, Nancy. Readings on John Grisham. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003.
- Conley-Weaver, Robyn. John Grisham. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1999.
- Guest, David. Sentenced to Death: The American Novel and Capital Punishment. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
- Lanier, Nace Y. Theology of John Grisham. Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 2000.
- Pringle, Mary Beth. John Grisham: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
- Schaller, Barry R.A Vision of American Law: Judging Law, Literature, and the Stories We Tell. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.
- Diggs, Terry K. ”Through a Glass Darkly: John Grisham and Scott Turow Lay Down the Law for Millions of Americans. Just What Is It They’re Trying to Tell Us?” ABA Journal (October 1996).
- John Grisham: The Official Site. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/ features/grisham/main.php.
- The Mississippi Writer’s Page: John Grisham. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from http://www.olemiss.edu/ depts/english/ms-writers/dir/grisham_john.
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