Grisham's Inside Skinny on the Law

Article excerpt

HERE'S an indication of John Grisham's saturation of the pop fiction market: In 1993, after his legal thriller "The Client" was released and his first one, "A Time To Kill," was republished, Grisham was in the unique position of having a book leading the hardcover best-seller list as well as books in the first, second and third spot among paperback best sellers.

In this light, even with all of the "Matthew McConaughey is the new Paul Newman" buildup, the film version of "A Time To Kill," released July 24, would seem to be just the latest Grisham factory product. With a remarkable 60 million copies sold in only five years, Grisham's books have become unavoidable in book stands, moviehouses and landfills everywhere.

But "A Time To Kill" actually marks a significant new stage in Grisham's rocketlike rise: He's one of the film's producers.

That puts him in the company of a handful of other novelists such as Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy and Stephen King. They're what we have instead of a literary pantheon: They have Hollywood clout. Authors such as Judith Krantz and Clive Barker exercise similar power over screen productions, but their films are B movies or sudsy TV miniseries. "A Time To Kill" is Grisham's fourth big-budget, major-studio release, and he's in charge of it.

He even was picked last year by the wise judges of People magazine to be among the 50 most beautiful people on the planet - the only novelist in the bunch.

Top of the world, Ma!

Not surprisingly, a writer this vastly popular - this rapidly popular - has taken his share of hits from reviewers.

Grisham, who declined to be interviewed, has been hailed for writing page-turners, summer-beach books - but little else. Ed Hinton in GQ declared that "in a long line of Mississippi writers, Grisham is a singular aberration and paradox, the worst and the richest, the least distinguished and the most popular."

But Grisham's supposed mediocrity as a writer doesn't answer the question: Why him? What in his books connects with so many people? Thousands of entertaining mediocrities, after all, have only a fraction of his audience.

There is the sheer-luck theory. While working as a Mississippi state legislator in 1987, Grisham wrote "A Time To Kill," and it went nowhere. Then he followed the "how to write a suspense novel" advice in a Writer's Digest article and wrote "The Firm." But before the book came out, a Hollywood agent got a bootleg copy and offered Grisham $600,000 for a film script. The rest is history. In other words, it could have happened to a number of genre writers.

Then there's the everyone-wants-to-know-about-the-law theory. "People are fascinated with the legal system," says Marc R. Kadish, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law who teaches a seminar on law and literature.

"I'm a big fan of Court TV, for instance. I had a lot of skepticism originally, but I think they're right. The more people know, the better off they are."

That's because the legal system is feared by many. It's confusing, it's powerful and, in today's society, it's everywhere.

"Naturally, people are going to feel less than happy about lawyers," Kadish says. "I'm a criminal defense lawyer myself, and I tell people we're like doctors. When you need us, it's generally bad news."

Hence, the legal thriller: We get the goosebumps of fiction with the assurance that we're learning about admissible evidence.

That legal thrillers are widely popular is nothing new. Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels sold 200 million copies and the landmark CBS-TV series with Raymond Burr (1957-66) is still in syndication.

Perry Mason remains the quintessential pop icon of the dogged defense lawyer, says Jeff Siegel, author of "The American Detective: An Illustrated History." And the contrasts with John Grisham's lawyers are telling. …