John Grisham, Rogue Lawyer: book review

I have a confession to make; I really like John Grisham novels. I’ve read them all, I think, even the YA Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer books, which are actually great fun. I fully agree that Grisham’s not a great prose stylist. He writes legal thrillers–so does Scott Turow, who is a better writer by far, a point Grisham has conceded. (In fact, Turow and Grisham are friends, and have worked together politically in opposition to the death penalty). But Grisham tells a great story, creates memorable (if a trifle flat) characters, and gets the legal details of his fictional cases right. And his heart’s in the right place. Grisham gives a lot of money for shelters for victims of domestic violence, and many of his novels seem to be as much about publicizing problems in the American legal system as they are about being entertaining potboilers.

I just re-read the last paragraph, and it occurs to me that my praise is pretty grudging. This is, after all, a writer who I really enjoy, and who has provided me with untold hours of reading pleasure. It’s quite possible that, as a fancy-pants intellectual type, I’m possibly a trifle embarrassed about liking a best-selling author of genre novels. Yikes. So let me start over; I really like John Grisham’s novels. And I just read the most recent of them, and it’s a corker. Get it; read it. Enjoy.

Most Grisham novels are about young idealistic lawyer protagonists. Often, Grisham’s heroes work in big soulless, horrible, New York law firms, hate everything about their lives, and quit when given a chance to Make A Difference (but for a lot less money). Grisham’s novels posit the law as a fundamentally neutral force in society. It can do a lot of good, in the right hands, and can shield and protect the worst elements in American society in the wrong hands. Grisham’s sympathies (and therefore, our sympathies) are with underdogs, but underdogs don’t really win all that often, which is why, in his more recent books, Grisham’s heroes have often ended up disillusioned. There’s also usually an issue Grisham’s books deal with; the plight of black-lung-suffering miners, for example, in Gray Mountain. Anyway, that’s Grisham; a popular story-teller, and a good guy, a man with a soul and a conscience, who uses his unique place in popular culture to try to do some good in the world.

His newest, Rogue Lawyer is a terrific read, but it’s really a departure. The hero, Sebastian Rudd, is a mean, tough, son-of-a-bitch, the ultimate bottom-feeding lawyer. He defends murderers and drug lords–he’ll defend anyone. (He couldn’t care less if the guy he’s defending is guilty or not–he’s going to try to get him off). He trawls for personal injury cases. He’s also a tremendous lawyer, though pretty thoroughly unethical; he’s constantly skating right on the edge of disbarment. He figures that prosecutors cheat and lie, so he needs to as well. His office is a van, and his best friend is also his bodyguard. His favorite recreation is MMA–his hobby is managing kick boxers. He’s divorced, and pretty well despises his ex-wife, but they manage to keep things (barely) civil for the sake of their son, a nice kid who Sebastian genuinely does love, though he nearly loses custody when he takes the kid to an MMA cage match.

Rudd is, in short, one of the most memorable and compelling lead characters Grisham has ever created. And the way Grisham uses him is equally fascinating. Usually, a legal thriller focuses on one case; Rogue Lawyer gives us four, each of them terrific. And each case illustrates beautifully a serious problem in the American legal system.

In the first case, for example, Rudd is defending a drug-addicted, brain damaged eighteen-year old accused of murder, a murder he did not commit. Not that Rudd cares if he committed it or not, but as it happens, Gardy, the defendant, is actually innocent. He’s also a loser, a semi-homeless petty thief, with multiple tattoos and piercings and a perpetual smirk to further endear him to a middle-class jury. The murder victim is young, attractive, female and middle-class. The prosecution wants the death penalty. It’s a highly publicized case. And Rudd’s client didn’t do it.

And that’s exactly the kind of defendant most likely to be found guilty despite the lack of any forensic evidence, and exactly the kind of defendant likely to be given the death penalty. And, frankly, Gardy is the kind of defendant likely to be assigned a public defender. He gets lucky; Rudd takes the case, not for the money, but precisely because it’s a highly publicized case; he loves notoriety. And, of course, Rudd’s defense is riveting; the description of the trial’s a real page turner. But the entire case, and Grisham’s discussion of it, is clearly an indictment of our entire criminal justice system relating to capital cases. I loved it on both levels.

The whole book’s like that. Rudd becomes a kind of symbol of both the worst and the best aspects of the American legal system. He’s a tremendous lawyer; he’s also a cynical, scabrous, mean, foul-mouthed jerk. And Grisham uses him superbly, to shed light on where our legal system has gone wrong, where, in particular, our lawmakers have failed. We see the consequences of the over-the-top militarization of the police. We see how far cops will go to protect their own. We see a venal and corrupt governor, who Rudd is able to manipulate to get some rough justice for a client.

The book’s going to be a movie, and I found myself wondering who would play Rudd. Who has that edge; who can play mean? Leonardo DiCaprio, maybe.

The entire book’s a thrill ride, thoroughly enjoyable, and pleasantly thought-provoking. It’s a fast and easy read, but it’s also trying to do some good in the world. I loved the time I spent with Sebastian Rudd, and can say that Rogue Lawyer is easily my favorite John Grisham novel. And I really like his work.


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