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
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
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. …