John Grisham was the first novelist whose entire bibliography I ever finished, though these days I must limit that to “adult” biblography, given his kid lawyer series. Given that there are so many, I thought it would be fun to list my favorites and unfavorites. Not mentioned are many in the middlle, of varied quality. The favorites are in chronological order, and the unfavorites are in stinklist order. Over the years I’ve tried to re-read Grisham books from before the blog, and I’ve linked to those with reviews.
A Time to Kill (1989): Grisham’s first novel opens with an outraged father taking justice into his own hands after the men who raped and beat his child are acquitted by a racially biased jury. The novel was mostly ignored until the success of The Firm gave Grisham real name recognition, but challenges the reader with the question of when it is appropriate to take justice into one’s own hands.
The Firm (1991): The first Grisham book I ever read, a crime thriller about a young lawyer who is accepted into an elite boutique firm, only to realize a few months in that they’re an organ of the Mafia.
The Pelican Brief (1992): It’s been a long time since I read this one in high school, but I remember being fascinated by the idea of Supreme Court opinions. The story tracks a series of deaths related to an explosive briefing about an endangered wetland (I…think?), and involves the New Orleans Mafia.
The Client (1993) Again, it’s been a long time since I read this one, but the story of a young boy stumbling upon a scene he wasn’t supposed to see, and subsequently becoming an object of interest to both the FBI and the Mafia, protected only by a young attorney who focuses on child abuse, is unforgettable. (….Grisham wrote quite a few Mafia related books early on, I’m realizing…)
The Chamber (1994) The Chamber is easily the most thought-provoking novel I read in high school. Its plot involves a young lawyer taking on his estranged grandfather — decades lost to him– as a client. His grandfather sits on death row, awaiting execution within the gas chamber after being judged guilty of a bombing which killed two children during the 1960s. The Chamber is less a legal thriller and more of a novel wrestling with moral themes, and reckoning with the past. This novel made me think long and deep about the death penalty in high school, which is more than any bombastic political arguments could have done.
The Rainmaker (1995) This duels with The Last Juror as my favorite, and it may not be an accident that they’re both first-person novels. Young Rudy Baylor, a bankrupt law school grad, stumbles upon a gold mine of a case while at a legal clinic. The novel turns into a genuine David vs Goliath story, and has the most comprehensive depiction of a legal trial from soup to nuts I’ve ever encountered.
The Street Lawyer (1998). A prosperous but unhappy big city attorney suddenly finds a way to find meaning in his life when his office is held hostage by a homeless man with a mission.
The Brethren (2000). I debated including this one on here, because I hate the ending. The setup, though, is fun. Three disgraced judges locked up in a federal pen are using their time in exile to scam up money for themselves by targeting closeted gay men for blackmail. When they accidentally snare a man handpicked by the CIA to be the next president things get interesting. I mostly enjoy this one for the execution of the scam; I found the mundane details of how the judges passed messages and money back and forth interesting.
The King of Torts (2003) Ah, this one is fun. A young attorney becomes a hotshot multimillionaire when he is invited into the world of mass torts, but it’s definitely a rise and fall situation. The novel is interesting in that while Grisham uses it to talk a little politics — as he usually does — there’s no hard line here.
The Last Juror (2004). One of Grisham’s more interesting novels; this one follows a couple of decades in the life of Willie Traynor, a weekly newspaper publisher, and through his press the life of Clanton, MS as Vietnam and suburbanization set their sights on American small towns. The story is tied together through a legal case involving a brutal murder, the memory of which keeps revisiting the town.
The Associate, 2009. A rather obvious attempt to make a story out of the Duke lacross team scandal, but instead of focusing on that, Grisham uses it to dive into some conspiracy thriller involving blackmail and defense contracts. I enjoyed it at the time, although the ending was…underwhelming. It has not improved in memory.
Grey Mountain, 2014. A premise with great potential is squandered by feckless lead character bobbing around like flotsam in a story that goes nowhere and serves only to bludgeon the reader with a message: Big Coal is Bad.
The Appeal, 2008. The first Grisham novel I read and wished I could have the time and money spent on it back. It’s a depressing tale of a mass tort case and crooked elections.
The Racketeer (2012): a bumbling lawyer who drifts into even more bumbling fraud morphs into a criminal mastermind while in prison, lying even to the reader. An unbelievable and obnoxious potboiler.
Rogue Lawyer (2015): nonstop despair, brooding, and violence, with a premise entirely too much like Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Easily my most unfavorite, and if it weren’t for the fact that I receive Grisham books as Christmas gifts by people who would be annoyed if I disposed of them, I would have set fire to this one as soon as I read it. Absolutely The Worst.
I’m not sure what to make of the fact that I apparently enjoyed Grisham’s earlier works far more than his recent ones. I’ve changed as a reader, I’m sure, just as I’m sure Grisham has changed as a writer: when he releases 1.5 books every year, a decrease in quality over time isn’t that surprising. Even if ideas don’t run out, passion can.