Justice Denied

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By Bethanne Patrick,
who writes the Book Maven blog for Publishers Weekly
Tuesday, January 29, 2008


By John Grisham

Doubleday. 358 pp. $27.95

With "The Broker" and now "The Appeal," John Grisham seems to be enlarging his fictional niche, focusing on hard-hitting, reality-based courtroom melodramas in which the message takes center stage. Despite cardboard characters and broad sweeps of malevolent action from Big Business, an affecting moral comes through in "The Appeal." It reads like a long, engaging and sad fable.

The book opens with the tension-filled moments before a Mississippi jury delivers its verdict in the case of Jeannette Baker v. Krane. The woman lost her husband and son to chemical poisoning and is suing the corporation responsible for flooding the river in the small town of Bowmore with toxic amounts of bichloronylene.

In the courtroom, we meet Jeannette's "mom-and-pop" legal team, Wes and Mary Grace Payton, who have risked everything to fight against the pollution in Bowmore. We also meet Jared Kurtin, Krane's counsel.

We see very little of Kurtin throughout the rest of the story, and that's part of Grisham's message -- that "the appeal" has relatively little to do with the defense. As for the plaintiff's team, the Paytons are smart, dedicated, compassionate and valiant. In their early 40s, with two young children, they have learned, through losing their suburban McMansion and luxury cars, the joys of simple living. "Wes and Mary Grace had managed to keep most of their furnishings," Grisham writes, "and the shabby apartment was decorated with fine things that not only reminded them of the past, but, more important, reminded them of the future. This was just a stop, an unexpected layover." At first this seems cloying. Are they really such saints? What's going to happen to these two? Will one of them turn tail and take a job with Krane?

Ordinarily in a novel we want to see some character development, some tension coming from within the protagonists and by their choices. But "The Appeal" derives its tension from forces far beyond the Paytons' control and far beyond even the Mississippi jurors' control.

When Manhattan-based Krane CEO Carl Trudeau learns that the jury has awarded $41 million to Baker, he is angry (albeit distracted by his trophy wife's lust for a pricey sculpture up for auction at their latest charity dinner). His crony, Sen. Grott, puts him in touch with a mysterious company named Troy-Hogan, headed by the even more mysterious Barry Rinehart. Trudeau isn't sure what to expect, except victory. In his world, there really isn't anything else at the board table. Disappointment may come in the bedroom and at the stock exchange, but ultimately, Trudeau and his ilk will win.

The mysterious Rinehart and his firm specialize in grooming and placing judicial candidates. Trudeau and his people believe that while Justice Sheila McCarthy remains on the Mississippi Supreme Court, the Paytons stand a chance of keeping their client's verdict and award on appeal. While the Paytons dream of leaving their small apartment and giving their staff bonuses, McCarthy is busy getting through her caseload. She believes that in the next election, she'll run unopposed -- until suddenly there are not one but two candidates, and McCarthy has undeservedly gained the reputation of being a soft liberal.

Rinehart has delicately engineered this roster, and much of Grisham's story has to do with the recruitment and training of a religious conservative to beat McCarthy. In reality, neither Rinehart nor Trudeau cares about politics or morals. To Grisham, that is the sad truth: No one's justice will be served. While chilling, Grisham's tale of modern legal machinations is also, unfortunately, timeless.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company