I was well aware of the popularity of Grisham before reading anything by him, and was quite surprised that such a ‘bestseller’ didn’t fall into a formula plot. Admittedly he was well established before publishing this one – maybe the others are more conventionally pleasing?
There are hints of thriller, and (in my mind) pretty much the assumption of a dramatic courtroom climax, but while either would have fitted easily with the content of the book, Grisham rejects them both.
Rather the novel centres entirely on the anatomy of the final days before an execution. There’s actually very little action to speak of, but a lot of dialogue, and reams of detailed narration of physical and judicial institutions. Rather than the pieces of the crime gradually being revealed, with a savage and vital twist forcing the pace, the opening chapters of the book simply relate precisely what happened in a neutral tone, revealing to three decimal places the exact degree of guilt of the defendant. So instead of the standard adrenaline ride of tracking down the ‘real’ guilty parties while dodging bullets and falling in love, we already know most of the salient details in the first few chapters.
What takes the book beyond being little more than a fictional ‘documentary’ is the personal/family aspect of our young hotshot lawyer (Adam) getting to know his ex-KKK grandfather (Sam) while representing him. How did some of these awful things go on in his family? How does the perpetrator feel about them now? Characters appear and recede only as far as they relate to the final days on this death row case. Several seemingly central characters turn out to be red herrings – or, at least, they would if this was a whodunit. However as a detailed narration of a few weeks it feels more authentic to have them come and go as the lawyer tries and then dismisses various tangents in the so called ‘gangplank’ appeals.
While at times he does push his luck with the amount of words devoted to relating precise architecture and procedures on death row, the documentary style generally enhances the book. I find it a real asset when a writer painlessly incorporates information about something they’re an expert on and/or have researched thoroughly (cf. philosophy/literature – Lodge, eg. Therapy ; rigging – Levi’s The Wrench, as opposed to Sophie’s World which merely cuts and pastes in pages of lecture notes rather than making the information part of the dialogue or action).
There is some suspense – this is a life and death situation revolving around appeals that will be judged – but a strength of the book is that it doesn’t rely on the dramatic final judgement to make it worth reading.
The major weakness, however, is its attempt to convince us of the invalidity of the death penalty. It is utterly transparent that key characters that oppose it are the salt of the earth, but anyone in favour has some basic character flaw (such as the slimy two-faced politician, or the martinet prison guard – blimey, what original characterisations), or is an embittered victim unable to be objective. This is a particular shame because there are a surprisingly large number of positive characters that aren’t mere throwaways. Moreover the essential way the reader is supposed to be convinced of the moral corruptness of the bad guys is that the heroic ones don’t like them - rather than what they actually say and do. Grisham even tries to reverse this – the reader, for example, is supposed to wryly laugh along with the clever tactic of the good-guys to commit wholesale fraud by inundating the governor’s phones with impersonated constituents opposing to the death penalty; this strategy is no better than someone stealing ballot boxes, for example, but we’re meant to swallow and even enjoy it, with a vague justification that the end justifies the means.
But while some of his self-conscious methods of arguing against execution fail, it’s a real irony that the actual resolution of the book is ingenuously a strong argument in favour of death row. It’s the salvation of the fallen criminal. What Grisham doesn’t seem to realise is that he constantly feeds Sam lines that endorse the redemptive effect of knowing that he’s going to die soon. Because of the imminence of death Sam says he ‘values life’ more than he used to – which enables him to realise the wrongness of violent acts he’d previously felt no remorse for. With the clock ticking Sam writes genuine letters of apology to all his victims, which would never have happened without such a threat. Indeed he repents in a staggering straight from a gospel tract scene, opening up to the priest because, in light of the chamber, he wants to make his peace. (This conversion, by the way, while doctrinally sound, is potentially muddied as a nominal middle American one as Sam says to Adam:
I look at you… you’re tolerant and broad-minded, well-educated, ambitious, going places … and I ask myself, Why didn’t I become … something like you…
That being said, while Grisham can’t help but tack some worldly success onto the inimical teaching of Christ, his presentation of the evangelical priest is startlingly positive, and there are some ‘money’s not worth integrity’ intimations here and there).
To convince his audience that it was wrong to send an utterly unrepentant killer – who’d do the same again without remorse given half a chance – to the chair would have been a difficult task. Alternatively Grisham has the intelligence not to present an innocent character wrongfully going to the gas chamber as his argument against execution: that’s merely against poor judicial processes. Instead he tries the middle ground of presenting a guilty but redeemed figure. But when the catalyst – or even cause – of that enlightenment is the chamber itself, the moral to this tale is hardly one opposing it.