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Originally published Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM


New side to John Grisham: storytelling of substance

"The Appeal" by John Grisham Doubleday, 368 pp., $27.95 Few people read John Grisham novels for literary depth, lyrical writing or passionate...

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Appeal"

by John Grisham

Doubleday, 368 pp., $27.95

Few people read John Grisham novels for literary depth, lyrical writing or passionate prose. Grisham, indeed, is known for his powerhouse stories, thundering along at breakneck speed without much of a passing thought to character development, thoughtful writing or even colorful prose.

Grisham's new novel, "The Appeal," is strikingly different. Grisham appears to be bent on not only telling an entertaining tale, but confronting a serious issue to boot. Set in rural Mississippi, the novel centers on a small town devastated by pollution from Krane Chemical Co., which polluted the town's water supply for years before it pulled up stakes and moved its facilities to Mexico. With a population suffering from cancer at 12 times the national rate, the town of Bowmore had seen more than its fair share of death and suffering.

The novel opens with the jury delivering a stunning verdict against Krane, including $41 million in punitive damages. The verdict is pure vindication for the small-town husband-and-wife lawyer team of Wes and Marygrace Payton, who have sacrificed everything to pursue the lawsuit. The chemical company, however, is owned by Wall Street financier Carl Trudeau, who is outraged at the verdict and has no intention of paying even a dime. Instead, after berating his raft of well-heeled corporate lawyers for losing the case, he appeals to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The only problem is that the state court is split, 5-4, with the conservative justices narrowly outvoted by a more liberal majority. With a $41 million verdict at risk, Trudeau is not taking any chances on mere legal advocacy to protect his interests. Instead, Trudeau recruits Ron Fisk, a well-groomed young man with a picture-perfect family, no discernible baggage and a strong pro-business bent to run against Court Justice Sheila McCarthy.

Trudeau pours millions of dollars into the race, coordinated by a slick organization of political operatives, pollsters, and advertising consultants, all designed to vilify Justice McCarthy as a wildly "liberal" justice bent on protecting criminals, promoting gay marriage, and restricting gun ownership. Sound familiar? With a carefully calibrated campaign, the Justice is buried under a virtual avalanche of televisions ads, radio spots and campaign literature. By the end of the campaign, even Fisk is left wondering who is funding the campaign and, more importantly, why. And the verdict on the appeal? Well, that's best left for the last few pages of the novel.

The novel is something of a departure for Grisham. Unlike so many of his prior novels, this one seems pointedly designed to address a serious issue rather than simply to entertain with implausible plot twists.

Instead, Grisham confronts in stark relief the dangers of electing judges in an era of big-money politics. It is a timely issue and a critical problem facing every state where judges and justices are elected. Judicial races rarely are the focus of a great deal of voter attention and thus are easily manipulated. The justices themselves are rather severely limited in what they can say, how much time or effort they can expend to defend themselves and their decisions, or on their own campaigns. The combination makes them uniquely vulnerable to organized assault by dedicated interest groups, with predictable results, even in states like Washington.

Grisham illustrates the dangers of such a system with a clever story and thoughtful plot. Of course, much of what makes Grisham's writing so predictable remains — the bad guys are stereotyped to the point of absurdity. The good guys (Wes and Marygrace, of course) are saintly to the point of straining credulity. Couldn't they have just one weakness, character flaw or demon to wrestle with? And for most of the book, things unfold just about how you expect them to, when you expect them to and with all too predictable results. But not entirely and that's what makes this novel different and worth reading.

In the end, Grisham closes with a scene designed to stay with the reader, and to raise the question whether electing judges is, all things considered in this day and age, an approach worth reconsidering. That question is worth the price of the book.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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