The Confession by John Grisham (2010: Century). An innocent man is days away from facing the death penalty. The man who committed the crime is, himself, facing death from a tumour. Can his last minute confession stop the wheels of the well oiled Texas death penalty machine? And how will the public drama affect the small Texan town that has been divided by the crime for almost a decade?
Come on now. Tell me you didn’t just read that synopsis and say in your head “classic Grisham”. I know you did. Some of you even said it out loud. The guy has got to the stage where you can recognise his plot from a mile away. Does that make him predictable or a master of his genre? I guess it makes him a millionaire, so who cares.
Say what you want about Grisham, after you’ve chewed your way through a few non-fiction books (one of which being particularly difficult to digest philosophy), few things bring you back to life quicker than a good old fashioned Grisham legal drama.
This is not a classic. For me, Grisham reached his peak with A Time to Kill. Since then, he’s basically been writing the same paperback for a legion of summer holidayers every year. There’ve been flashes of originality where he’s left his comfort zone with success. There was one about an American football player in Italy, one which went through a real life case, one which was a collection of short stories. But the majority of his twenty-odd novels are well spun legal dramas based in the familiar environs of America’s southern states.
So where does this one rank? Well, it has all the right ingredients. Heartbreaking legal injustice, check. A central figure who can hold our hands as the plot unfolds, check. The backdrop of a divided and prejudiced community, check. An obsessive, crusading lawyer, check. About 100 opportunities to explain why Grisham doesn’t like the death penalty, check. Roll up roll up, it’s all here.
Knowing the Grisham formula doesn’t make it any less enjoyable though. Well, not much less enjoyable anyway. I was hooked again within a few dozen pages. The story is masterfully woven, incredibly tight. There wasn’t a single sentence out of place, not one instant where I felt I needed to do any work. I turned every one of the 450-odd pages eagerly. Yes, my eyes rolled every now and then, and I usually had a pretty good idea of how the next bits of the plot were going to unfold. I’d met a lot of the characters before, just with different names and in different Grisham novels. But the story skipped along, and I enjoyed the ride for the most part.
That isn’t to say The Confession didn’t tackle some big-ish issues. It did. The death penalty. Racism in the USA. The possibility of rehabilitating sex offenders. The stifling bureaucracy of the Church. They’re all there, just dealt with in a fairly one-sided, simplified, Grisham sort of a way.
After what the last few books demanded from me, this one demanded very little. It was like a post-season exhibition match after a long gruelling season. Still the same game you’ve been playing for years, but more relaxed, a bit more fun.
This was a nice, quick read. Compelling in places, but predictable for the most part. Not groundbreaking, but making up for it with spoonfulls of tight Grisham plotting.
Give me six months, I’ll have forgotten all about this book. But it was fun while it lasted.
Next week, one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. A Million Little Pieces. Now, how do I tag that one – fiction or non-fiction?