I'm not bovvered if no-one reads this, but I haven't written a book review on my blog yet and I feel like doing one, so here goes.
I've just this year discovered the American writer, John Grisham, who published his first novel in 1989 and has since become well-known in the "legal thriller" genre after publishing in 1991 The Firm which sold in the millions.
I haven't read any of the long string of thrillers yet but have read A Painted House from 2001, Ford County (2009), Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer (2010) and now I've just finished that first novel from 1989, A Time to Kill.
Grisham, ten years younger than me, was brought up in small-town Mississippi and practised law for ten years until the success of The Firm. He is currently writing for teenagers, having produced three Theodore Boone books from 2010 to 2012. These are in fact "legal thriller" genre for kids, the hero being a thirteen year old son of lawyer parents. Theodore has unreal access to the small-town court, inside information on cases and takes time off from school to solve a case. I wasn't that impressed with the first novel despite the hero being named Theo and riding a bike to school. I won’t bother with the other two, but then I'm not a teenager.
What really turned me on to Grisham was Ford County, a collection of seven short stories set in a Mississippi county forty miles south of Tupelo (where Elvis grew up) and and not far from the Tennessee border and Memphis. These stories are earthy, rooted in the small-town life of main street surrounded by rural back roads and cotton farms. The people are poor, redneck and overcome by institutionalised racism, although despite this some of Grisham's characters are specifically not racist, and it seems that while unwritten rules are followed, racial harmony and even friendship are possible.
The two stories in the collection that stand out for me are the first, Blood Drive and the last, Funny Boy. Blood Drive describes the road trip of three young men who drive from Clanton, the small town of Ford County that features in the stories, to Memphis to donate blood to their relation who's been injured in a workplace accident. It's an entertaining farce, told with fine detail and a sense of the ridiculous. Funny Boy, on the other hand, tells of an AIDS sufferer, a member of one of the rich, old white families of Clanton, who returns from California to die in his home town. The story describes the prejudice against Adrian Keane, how he is rejected by his own family, has to be taken in by a black woman in the negro shanty town, and the consequences of this for both of them. This story stirs emotions in the reader regarding human behaviour, both the highs and lows.
My favourite among these Grisham books is A Painted House, set on an eighty-acre cotton farm during the 1952 season of cotton picking and told by a narrator who was seven at the time of the novel. It is essentially about the family who run the farm, Pappy and his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, and Luke, the seven-year-old; these are joined by a group of ten Mexicans who are hired to pick cotton and live in the barn during the picking, and a group of seven "hill people" who come down from the Ozarks each year for the picking and have tents to pitch in the farmyard. The descriptions are masterly, detailing the oppressive summer weather, the backbreaking work in the rows of cotton, riding the tractor to the "lower forty". The relations between the three groups on the farm contribute to plenty of adventures, which are told with sympathy and full understanding of the nuances involved.
The first book Grisham wrote, A Time to Kill, is set in Clanton, Ford County, and introduces a recurring theme- the central village square with courthouse, lawyers' offices and plenty of cafes where the lawyer hero can eat breakfast and interact with many of the characters.
I can only assume this book is not "legal thriller" because we know "who dunnit" from the start. However there is lots of build up of tension and anticipation of how the court case, the central focus of the plot, will turn out. It concerns the rape of a negro girl by two white men, and explores how the legal system in this small town would operate and the populace would react if the races in the case were reversed. Again, there's lots of action, and a great deal about the race relations that exist in the district, as well as much about behind-the-scenes workings of the judicial system. I read the book in as few sessions as possible to find out what would happen next.
A Time to Kill is not a great book. In terms of writing quality, maybe I'd relate it Stephen King - a good yarn well told with plenty of authentic detail and not to be forgotten; whereas A Painted House, which I much prefer, has more of Grisham's heart and soul in it and makes me think of John Steinbeck or William Faulkner. In all these books, the writing is direct and uncomplicated, a pleasure to read. There's no doubt that John Grisham is worthy of attention.