In John Grisham’s new novel “The Guardians,” truth is sadder than fiction. But that realization comes at the end of the book, in a well-placed author’s note.
Before that comes a solid story, and one that is better than anything Grisham has released in recent years. Fans of the author’s legal thrillers will judge this latest work as a win for the defense.
Grisham is no stranger to advocacy fiction — for a blatant example, note “The Tumor,” a free e-book with the grossly misapplied sobriquet, “a non-legal thriller” — and “The Guardians” (Doubleday) falls squarely in the author’s wheelhouse. Like his most successful novels, “The Guardians” explores big themes, here those being the subjects of prejudice, the death penalty and false incarceration.
About the last, which drives the plot, our cleric-cum-lawyer narrator relates, “Prison is a nightmare for those who deserve it. For those who don’t, it is a daily struggle to maintain some level of sanity. For those who suddenly learn that there is proof of their innocence yet they remain locked up, the situation is literally maddening.”
Although Grisham tries a bit too hard in this novel to spoon-feed such exposition, the realization is that in this story, Quincy Miller is enduring such madness. In prison for more than two decades following a murder conviction, attorney and priest Cullen Post is convinced of his innocence.
More importantly, he’s convinced others, too — no attorney can be an island when tackling such mammoth and expensive projects. Along with a small staff, Post works with Guardian Ministries, a legal firm that researches the cases of those they judge having been victims of miscarried justice. Their successes are not voluminous — the firm is a nonprofit hampered by a constant lack of funds — but they are momentous: The novel opens with an 11th-hour Hail Mary death penalty stay engineered solely and only by Post and team.
From here, vintage-Grisham plotting and characterizations develop a credible case against a small-town sheriff and a much smaller — in terms of ethics — justice system. As with his best novels, the author’s world-building is entirely believable and his court scenes are masterfully drawn. You’ll root for the good guy without knowing until the end if justice prevails.
What you’ll also root for at the end comes in the form of a surprise: the most-touching scene Grisham has ever produced in a novel. It centers on forgiveness and is powerful because it so easily — and many would contend, rightly — could have been forgiveness denied.
Which brings us to the author’s note. Grisham has ever-declared that his best inspirations come from headlines and real-life sources, and so it is here. The author models his fictional firm on the New Jersey-based Centurion Ministries and its successful work in freeing the wrongly convicted.
The plot however, taken from Grisham's research, is another story.
That the author takes license to write the ending he chooses is his right, and makes a satisfying story. That the rights of those who are innocent but nevertheless incarcerated hinge on a system in which justice is truly blind is wrong. This is the mission for which “The Guardians” advocates, and here justice, if not carried, is at least given a fair hearing.