When a new Grisham novel comes out these days, his legions of inquiring fans want to know if it's a legal thriller or one of his side projects. The answer this time is both - or maybe neither.
The title of "The Last Juror" would suggest this is in the genre in which Grisham initially won fame and acclaim, and the book does concern a trial. But this is really a once-over-lightly study of a small Mississippi town and its local newspaper's role in the 1970s. "To Kill a Mockingbird," this ain't.
It's pretty basic stuff for a novel about how people handle adversity or overcome the odds. Grisham lately has been on a kick about how his protagonists handle having wealth dropped into their laps. Call it "Horatio Alger Wins the Lottery."
In "The Rainmaker," a kid right out of law school is handed a slam-dunk case against a stupidly fraudulent insurance company, and the high-priced law firm he goes against is staffed with fools. In "The Summons," a melancholic, middle-aged lawyer stumbles upon crates of cash, while "The King of Torts" is handed the key to fabulous wealth while unexpectedly making a specialty of a particular kind of class-action medical suit.
William Traynor is a Memphis-born, Syracuse-educated, journalism major whose rich grandmother is tired of paying for his screw-ups, so he's forced to get a job. He finds one working for the Ford County Times in Clanton, Miss. In quick order, he uses Grandma's money to buy the bankrupt paper from its stroke-felled publisher.
On cue, Willie, as he's now called, is handed the story of the century in Clanton. Rhoda Kasselaw, a widowed mother of two, is raped and murdered in her home by Danny Padgitt, the scion of a family of cutthroats and thieves who inhabit a desolate area in the swamps at the edge of Ford County.
But the case is a no-brainer. The bad guy is obvious - and, along with his whole clan, rather cartoonish - and the only suspense is over how severe a sentence he will get.
At the same time he is covering the trial, Willie has become friends with Callie Ruffin, a saintly, old, black lady who has raised eight children, seven of whom have become college professors. Miz Ruffin is chosen for the jury, becoming Clanton's first black juror.
The first half of the book - which largely concerns the trial, the Padgitts and Willie's growing acceptance in the town - is pretty easy to take, if unchallenging.
Things really bog down in the second half as Willie covers the desegregation of Clanton's schools and opposes the Vietnam War in editorials. You might expect that these controversial subjects might make life tough for Willie or force tough decisions. Not here, though.
Desegregation actually becomes popular when a black player runs a punt back for a touchdown in the first high school football game, and his opposition to the war gets Willie only three dissenting letters to the editor. People usually aren't given enough credit for their natural tendency toward tolerance, but this is too easy.
There's also a certain anachronistic quality to some of Grisham's mild-mannered political correctness. In the early 1970s, would an elderly black woman, no matter how perfect and wise, make a point of being an organic gardener? A chain superstore (read Wal-Mart) wants to come to Clanton. Were there really studies then that argued such a development would be a bad thing for a small town?
Later, Grisham seems to argue that while it's bad to buy a TV from an out-of town-corporation, instead of paying a hundred bucks extra to a local merchant, it's OK if an out-of-town media corporation wants to provide your local news as long as our young hero can make a million bucks in the transaction.
When someone starts shooting people involved with the Kasselaw case, it's almost a relief. At last, some movement in the plot! Well, not really. The culprit is telegraphed miles in advance, and, like everything else in this book, it's dealt with lightly.
Some of this would make sense and be darned interesting if "The Last Juror" were nonfiction about the changes that took place in a real town. But it's not - it's a novel. So how about some drama, already?