THE APPEAL. John Grisham. New York: Doubleday, 2008. Pp. 358. $27.95.
Reviewed by THE HONORABLE LESLIE H. SOUTHWICK*
Why in the world is there a review in a legal journal of a novel, even if it is of the incomparable John Grisham's 2008 work, The Appeal? Novels usually do not qualify because such reviews must tease out of a book the deep constitutional or other fundamental themes, contrast and compare a wide range of legal authorities, display constant erudition and intellectual sophistication, and balance praise for some aspects with a tuttutting over errors or omissions, all offered while maintaining a sufficient distance from the author to show superiority and, more indispensably than all the other ingredients, giving all assertions full support from detailed and numerous footnotes.
Before seeking to justify this review, I will note the obvious there is no sentence such as that which just happily ended, of such denseness or length, in any of Grisham's fast-paced and extraordinarily popular books. Conversely, fellow Mississippian William Faulkner would have barely cleared his throat with a nine-clause sentence.2 That may be one reason Faulkner's slice of the book-buying public was somewhat smaller than Grisham's. According to the publisher's website, there are currendy "over 225 million John Grisham books in print worldwide, which have been translated into 29 languages."3 Grisham's market success has soared beyond what would have been a reasonable person's conceivable imagining when he tentatively entered the novelist arena twenty years ago - and John Grisham gives every indication of being a very reasonable man.
Perhaps it was that secure acceptance by loyal readers that gave Grisham a willingness to diverge a bit from the safe path. After legal thrillers from 1989 through 2005, Grisham wrote a nonfiction book about The Innocent Man and then a novel about an American athlete in Italy who was Playing for Pizza. With The Appeal, published in early 2008, Grisham returned to his proven formula of writing legal thrillers.
The Appeal does not break many of the Grisham rules. There are idealistic lawyer heroes and arch villains in the guise of businessmen. There is a murder, lesser crimes, grand and also petty greed. There is a trial. This time, there is also an appeal hence, the title. The cast of characters is manageable, with a few first appearing at surprising points to add new plot twists. And, as always, there is this Southern writer's affecting avoidance of sex scenes, gratuitous or otherwise.
I do not know all the components of the Grisham formula, but he seems to keep most of the ingredients. What is different is that the thriller has a much more prominent political message than his earlier works. It is that electing judges is the worst possible mode of selection. His brief author's note closing the book makes that point just in case anyone thought he did not mean it.5 Grisham candidly describes the book as his most openly political novel.6 This acclaimed novelist's venture into the policy arena justifies a legal journal's venture into reviewing his work.
It is my task to deconstruct this world-stature novelist's work, and to do so in writing. No task for the timid. I will examine The Appeal from three perspectives. One is to take it on its most obvious terms, as a legal thriller. Does it succeed at that level? The book is by John Grisham, so the answer will not take long or be surprising.
The second perspective is to consider it, as at times it appears to be, as an opening argument and then a one-sided trial about corporate greed and trial-lawyer virtue. Unlike a usual trial, there is not another side given.
Finally, I will examine the work at its most political - how does the case against electing judges hold up? Since Grisham takes Mississippi as the setting for his fiction, I will use actual Mississippi judicial selection events to determine how much truth there is in the story. …