December 17, 2015


In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Most-slapped person at parties: Pat Black

Long before I learned how much fun it is to give lawyers all your money, I put John Grisham's 1990s legal thrillers in the dock.

During a strange period of my life in between my final year at school and the end of my first year at university, I emerged from a long-lasting horror novel phase into what I thought were more "varied" types of fiction. In truth these were not so much interesting books as different types of commercial fiction.

On top of genuine curiosity and a love of books, there was method in my mediocrity. I wanted to know what made these headline act novels tick, no matter what the genre. I wanted to learn how to write one.

I took a punt on The Firm (1991), moving out of my fiction comfort zone, and surprised myself by really enjoying it. Grisham’s breakthrough blockbuster showcased what I believe are the two greatest assets of any commercially successful novelist: pace and plot. 

Grisham can crank out a tale. He knows when to take a break from the main action, when to drop in a twist or two, and - I wouldn't suggest for a minute this was any consequence of his legal career - he knows how to construct a tangled, twisted storyline peopled by amoral bastards.

The Firm’s hero has a comic book name: Mitch McDeere. MM is a hotshot fresh out of grad school, having finished near the top of the class at Harvard where, like all straight-A swots, he was probably reviled. He has a beautiful wife, and is going places. He's hired by the firm in the title, and seduced with the promise of great wealth as well as the odd trip to the Caribbean for "work". 

As a scrubby 17-year-old living in a squalid tenement with utterly no prospects, I was goggle-eyed at the scenes of McDeere working out his terms of employment. "And did the man say Mercedes?"

I must confess to some rumblings of envy, and perhaps a little belch of greed. Maybe I should have done Law instead of this Arts and Social Studies nonsense, I thought to myself...

McDeere ties up his big house and fancy car, but things aren't quite what they seem at the firm. Some of his colleagues die unusually, and messily. Not quite “fall into an industrial liquidiser” unusual, but odd enough to raise an eyebrow or two.

McDeere hires a private eye to do some digging, and finds out that the firm is actually a front for a massive money-laundering operation for the mafia. McDeere appears to be at the end of a long trail of dead lawyers once attached to the company. 

Things get tastier when McDeere is contacted by the FBI, who offer him a choice not many of us would relish: snitch on the mafia and go into witness protection for the rest of your days, or remain on the inside, knowing that if you don't end up in jail, you're probably going to have an unfortunate accident. 

McDeere takes a gamble, and plays the two sides off against each other. 

Sub-plots are nicely blended in. There's McDeere's brother, a convict who helps put him onto the private investigator. McDeere's wife has a hand in stealing documents relating to the firm's illegal activities, a vital bargaining chip with the FBI. The private eye's investigations would make a great tale on their own.

There's also an intriguing moment when McDeere's McD gets the better of his McBrain on a sandy beach one starry night. This leads to horrible complications when it turns out he's been humping away on top of a buried honey trap.

These secondary elements were handled well. It's a lesson in thriller writing; that's how you keep a big novel moving. 

Most of us can only dream of how it must have felt for Grisham, selling millions of copies, knowing the book was going to be turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise, knowing he was made for life, a dazzling career up and running. It can't be too far off how Mitch McDeere feels when he's handed the keys to the kingdom. Into the great wide open, indeed. 

Great success in publishing is experienced by very few of us. Sometimes it's down to a mixture of simple luck, good contacts, Jedi-level editing, a stout advertising budget, pure hype… and already being famous. But sometimes you have to take your hat off to talent, and Grisham, in his plotting and execution, has it in the locker. 

(Talent, not my hat.) 

I returned to Grisham for The Pelican Brief (1992). This one follows a hotshot law school undergrad, Darby Shaw, who discovers that a couple of top judges were assassinated as part of a plot to force through oil drilling on environmentally-protected land, a habitat for endangered pelicans (ta-da, title!). 

As in The Firm, once the conspiracy is discovered, bodies start dropping, including Shaw's college professor (and lover). This type of "uncovered corruption" story used to feature journalists as the key guys, and Grisham acknowledges this by switching the action to a newspaper and introducing the other main character, a hack with the slightly less impressive superhero name of Gray Grantham. 

There's a siege of sorts at the newspaper offices as Darby seeks refuge under the protective wing of the free press, hoping that those silly old concepts, truth and justice, will prevail. 

This one had the same elements which helped make The Firm a hit, though its finale fizzled out rather than exploded (arguably this was The Firm's weakest point, too). It's an engrossing thriller, though. 

These are aggressively American novels. By that, I mean that they have a strong strand of the classic American Dream in their DNA. Mitch McDeere and Darby Shaw are master-swots. They come top of the class. They work incredibly hard - McDeere bills 100-hour weeks; Shaw's life is an avalanche of case files - but their rewards are in sight, and achievable. It all pays off for them. They succeed on their own merit.

I can see how my younger self was hoodwinked by this notion that if you work hard enough at anything, success must follow. This is a strangely American conceit, and of course it's absolute nonsense, in the same way as the plucky Briton who reaches the top through a mixture of luck, charm and unstructured natural talent is also total bunk.

Hard work was never a barrier to success, of course. But we know that many successful people are on the fast-track to the big time before they've even popped out of the womb, and sometimes rewards bear little relation to how hard their recipients worked.

These go-getter heroes of western capitalism with their bizarre fetish for cosmetic dentistry are very rare in UK stories. We tend to champion less obviously successful characters, and usually outright underdogs. There's something peculiar in the British national character that tends to sneer at a clever, neatly-turned-out, well-educated, ambitious person. 

I'm not saying either stance is right or wrong; every "winner" I've ever met could do with adding a bit of humility to their game. Equally, crazy, quirky people trying to bumble through life on the strength of charm, eccentricity, a nebulous concept of "natural talent" and nebbish self-deprecation could benefit from lessons in hard graft and assertiveness. 

But it's interesting to me when US and UK cultures clash. We share a language, popular culture and some traditional and ethnic elements, and there's an almost reflexive tendency to think the countries are the same, or at least close siblings. They're not.

Once The Pelican Brief had flown, my John Grisham story came to an abrupt end. I began to pay more attention to the classics, left-field literature, cult properties and generally more interesting books than what appeared in the window at WH Smith. But I did have a third bite at Grisham's tasty torts in The Brethren (2000). 

It's not one of Grisham's better-known books, but is well worth checking out. It follows three judges who've been jailed for a variety of crimes. They operate a blackmail scam from their cells, targeting well-known politicians and celebrities who are secretly gay, and extorting cash out of them for their retirement fund when they are finally released. One of their targets is involved in a political assassination, and soon they draw attention from criminals, political Mephistopheles and Machiavellis and, as before, the FBI. 

What struck me was the sheer nastiness of the plotting, the calculated way the Brethren reeled their marks in, and how skilfully they manoeuvred out of tight situations, both inside and outside jail. This is a book without heroes, and no-one to root for - just a set of bastards trying to work things out to their satisfaction. It's a tight, and surprisingly tart piece of work. 

Case closed. One thing about all these books of yesteryear: although I could make a great case for the defence of physical books, one undeniable argument in favour of e-readers is that you don't have to go far to find the stuff. In just a couple of clicks, you can have them downloaded. That can’t be a bad thing.

:: Next: The Blind Reviewer feels his way into one last review... But he might have to tread carefully. He's in a basement of some kind... 

Christ, it's all sticky in here. Is this some kind of wall? Am I stuck in a well

I knew I should have told someone I'd been invited to Thomas Harris' house... 

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