Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

The Chamber by John Grisham, 1994

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This book has the markings of being a major turning point for Grisham. It shows an impatience with cartoonish thriller-writing (even while indulging in same to a small extent) in favor of grappling with issues and ideas important to Grisham, and attempting to etch characters with more depth than typical thriller inhabitants.

His very first book, A Time to Kill, also sprang from his personal concerns, confronting racism in southern culture right off the bat (I’ve not read it, nor seen the movie, but I do know the basic plot). Then The Firm sold a bajillion copies, with a rather simple wish-fulfillment premise (take the money and run). His next book was the exceedingly cartoony The Pelican Brief, in which two (count ’em, two!) Supreme Court Justices are assassinated, and one lowly law student is the only one who pieces together the why. Then he wrote The Client, which (once again judging more from the film than the book itself) took a cartoonish premise (a nine-year-old boy hires a failed lawyer and takes on the mafia!) and used it to begin to explore heavier issues (class and poverty in the modern south).

Then this.

It is, if the title doesn’t make it clear, a death penalty tale. And it takes sides without apology; all of the good guys are against it. Which is fine by me; better than waffling indecision, I say. Especially so since Grisham very pointedly makes the “victim” (that is, the convict who is to be executed) guilty as all hell and largely unsympathetic — he makes a real effort to avoid straw man situations or the easy way out. Which raises this well above the “classic” The Grapes of Wrath, if you can believe that.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, middle-aged Sam Cayhall is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, though not a remarkable one. When the FBI has shut down most of the KKK’s activities through harrassment and bribery, Cayhall is recruited into a covert team. He works with an out-of-state explosives expert, and the two conduct5 a series of non-lethal bombings, most of which had Jewish targets. The last bombing is of a lawyer’s office, and something goes wrong — maybe. The bomb was “supposed” to detonate at 5 a.m. Instead, it goes off just before eight and, due to happenstance, kills the lawyer’s twin 5-year-old sons, but only cripples the lawyer himself. Cayhall is caught near the blast. His partner disappears and is never suspected — Cayhall is thought to have acted alone, and there is almost no evidence to the contrary.

He is tried once: hung jury. Twice: hung jury. Mississippi in the 1960s was not an easy place to convict whites for crimes against minorities. Mississippi in 1980, however, is a different story, and trial number three results in a death sentence.

In 1990, his appeals have run their course, and a date is set. A new, less than a year out of law school lawyer takes up his defence at this point, a kid named Adam Hall. Who happens to be Cayhall’s grandson.

The bulk of the novel occurs in the four weeks leading up to the execution date.

Adam grew up ignorant of his family’s dark past, never knowing he ever had any family beyond his parents and sister. He learned the truth following his father’s suicide, which followed Cayhall’s conviction and sentencing.

After that, Adam became obsessed with his grandfather’s case, decided to become a lawyer, put himself through Pepperdine(!) and the University of Michigan’s Law School, then took an entry-level job in Chicago with the firm that was defending Cayhall (pro bono). When Cayhall succeeds in winning a lawsuit to fire the firm, Hall steps in and offers himself to get them re-hired, betting that his relationship, if nothing else, will do the trick.

Things proceed from there, and the wonder of it is that, while it is inarguably a “page-turner”, it mostly eschews the cliches, melodrama, and hackneyed thriller elements you might expect. No rabbits are pulled out of any hats, no creaky devices signalling the author’s convenience. Cayhall is guilty as sin, he’s had better than adequate representation, and pretty much everything’s already been tried and shot down by the courts. The tension arises from just how little his defense has to work with, and from revelations of Cayhall family history.

The set-up allows Grisham to explore the violent racist past of his home state as well as giving himself a nearly-worst-case scenario from which he tries to convince the reader of the wrongness of the death penalty.

There are only a few false notes here.

First, Cayhall’s partner, the actual bomber, turns up in the present. This, in itself, wasn’t a problem, but his introduction was. He’s presented in a secret neonazi underground fortress with James Bond-villain-level resources. (A Roger Moore era villain. Blech!) it’s a single short chapter, and it should have been cut. His occasional appearances in the rest of the story are muted and effective.

The other false note is Nugent, the ex-military buffoon who has highly-polished boots and can’t wait to oversee his first execution. He’s a charicature, a lazy one, and while Grisham nearly gives him some complexity and humanity in the final few chapters, it doesn’t make up for the knee-jerk liberal cliche of the kill-happy military idiot.

But those are minor quibbles. This is mature and accomplished work.

Written by [IMH]

19 June 2006 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Literature

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