Were you taking odds on what John Grisham’s next novel would be, the safe bet would always be legal thriller.
Safe, but not sure. Not by a long-shot.
An author who tested three colleges before finally settling on Mississippi State University to complete a degree in accounting and earning his JD from Mississippi School of Law, who had famously hoped in younger years to have a career in baseball, who once served in the Mississippi House of Representatives and who is politically active with the Innocence Project, has a wide bandwidth when it comes to what he next wants to publish.
And so, after a slew of legal thrillers beginning with 1989’s “A Time to Kill,” we got novels such as “A Painted House” — Grisham’s 2001 departure from law and into Southern fiction — and the holiday tale, “Skipping Christmas.”
From there, with yet a good number of legal thrillers tossed in, a loyal cadre of readers (Grisham is one of only three authors to boast a 2 million copy first printing, with Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling being the others) was rewarded with volumes of short stories (“Ford County”), notable nonfiction (“The Innocent Man; Murder and Injustice in a Small Town”), a young adult series (“Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer”) and several successful film adaptations.
Oh, and somewhere in the mix was a novel or two centered on baseball.
Which is all a long lead-in to Grisham’s newest offering, “The Reckoning” (Doubleday) — yet another deviation from form.
“The Reckoning” is at its core a legal thriller. The year is 1946 and decorated World War II hero Pete Banning walks into a local Mississippi church and shoots pastor Dexter Bell. The murder is methodical, preplanned and mysterious — Banning had no seeming reason to kill Bell and offers no defense to his lawyer, his family or the community in which he was much loved.
Not even a death penalty threat and the probable loss of his family’s large land holdings can get Banning to divulge his reasons. Pleas from his friends and his college-age children — who would essentially be left parentless since Banning had previously engineered his wife’s mental commitment — go unheard. An offer from the governor himself to commute the sentence if only Banning will divulge the why is unheeded.
So, yes, “The Reckoning” is a legal thriller. But it’s also a mystery cum avenue for Grisham to descend into the Jim Crow-era South, the jungles of the Philippines, sexual mores and the secrets of an insane asylum.
In the release that always accompanies such books as publishing houses send to critics, Doubleday calls the novel a “departure” for the author.
That it is that, Grisham’s fans will have no doubt.
But like those earlier excursions from legal thriller fare, there is a literary payoff. In what is undoubtedly the author’s most ambitious work, Grisham has constructed a whole from the sum of his parts.
Does it work?
Although “The Reckoning,” and its readers, would have benefitted from less World War II exposition about Banning’s capture, gorilla warfare and even the Bataan Death March — this deployment from the “story” provides crucial background but easily consumes more than a third of the novel — Grisham does offer a solid narrative and some of his best writing to date.
And importantly, with this novel comes the realization that even with the author’s 40th publication, he can still surprise.
But best of all, although the courtroom drama may be wrapped a bit too tightly in layers of back story and a mystery that sometimes struggles to drive the novel to its end, the legal thrill is definitely not gone.
“Ford County was in another world,” the narrator tells us in the novel’s final pages. Yes, but it’s a world Grisham’s fans know well, and will happily revisit in this aspiring work.