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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The King of Torts by John Grisham. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN: 0-385-50804-2

John Grisham may not be the King of Torts, but he's certainly the king of legal thrillers in recent years. Not only have many of his books topped the best seller charts, several have been made into successful movies. His books have had the kind of success that carries them into the mainstream, well beyond the confines of his chosen genre. And his definite article titles have become legendary in and of themselves: The Client, The Firm, The Chamber, The Testament, The Partner, The Summons, The King (of Torts).

But I have always liked his stories because of his perfection of what I call, for lack of a better term, the "set piece." That is, he sets up situations which are so perfect, so absolutely right, that it nearly takes your breath away. I'll just cite a couple of examples from my favorite Grisham, The Client:

First there is the scene where eleven-year-old Mark Sway accidentally stumbles onto the perfect lawyer for his case, and starts telling his remarkable story. Reggie Love, the lawyer, doesn’t take him seriously at first, but that changes completely as his tale unfolds. You, the reader, already know the seriousness of his predicament, and you can't help but revel in the scene as the lawyer realizes what is at stake, and becomes all business.

Another equally perfect scene is the one in which Reggie tells off the famous prosecutor, assorted aides, FBI officers, and other law enforcement officials when she finds out they've been invading the privacy of her clients. You can't help but love it.

But back to The King of Torts. This story is just a little too pat. No, I take that back: it's WAY too pat, too obvious by far. Rags to riches and back, almost. A poor over-worked public defender is handed the perfect wrongful death case, and becomes a multimillionaire class action torts lawyer almost overnight, running million dollar ad campaigns to round up clients for various other class action lawsuits, renting fancy office space, hiring then buying a private jet, renting a high class call girl as his squeeze, and on and on.

In this case, Grisham sets up the plot in such an obvious fashion that you know almost from the beginning that this bubble is going to burst almost as rapidly as it was created, and that the inevitable fall is coming sooner, not later. Unfortunately for the reader, Grisham seems too engrossed in creating an another instant best seller to really develop the story line in a careful believable fashion, as he has done in some of his other novels such as the ones cited above. This thin book just doesn't cut it, or rather, it DOES cut far too many corners.

Grisham wants to have his cake and eat it too. His hero gets rich overnight then crashes. Only Grisham can't bear to leave us with an unhappy ending, so the guy gets the girl after all, and his friends give him enough of their ill-gotten gains to make everyone rich and happy. The story would have been a lot more believable with the protagonist in jail and broke. But no, the publisher (and the readers) might not like that. So despite having shown us the gross injustice and pure greed of the mass torts industry, our particular king of torts walks away essentially scot-free.

Not particularly recommended unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool Grisham fan.


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