Thirty novels into his nearly three-decade career, John Grisham still makes it look easy. Last fall, he brought out “Gray Mountain,” a superb thriller about the environmental and human wreckage wrought by big coal companies in Appalachia. This fall, Grisham has switched gears once again and is debuting what looks to be a series featuring a so-called street lawyer named Sebastian Rudd.
Or maybe a better term for Rudd would be “mobile lawyer.” Ever since his brick-and-mortar office was firebombed, he has been operating his practice out of a bulletproof van. It’s tough to say who was responsible for the firebombing because Rudd is an equal-opportunity offender. He has rubbed so many different people the wrong way — gang members, the police, insurance companies, other lawyers, his ex-wife — that he has resigned himself to packing a pistol, sticking close to his bodyguard and changing motel rooms every few nights when he is arguing his (always controversial) cases.
For relaxation, Rudd swigs bourbon and patronizes cage fights, those brutal, no-holds-barred martial arts “entertainments” that critics have likened to human cockfights. “Mr. Smooth” Sebastian is not. But in hallowed Grisham tradition — where the guys in the custom-tailored suits are always trumped by the scrappy underdogs — he is the defense attorney you want sitting beside you in the courtroom when something unpleasant hits the fan.
“Rogue Lawyer” is so cleverly plotted, it could be used as a how-to manual in fiction-writing courses. Its opening chapters are self-contained, giving the impression that this will be a collection of short legal suspense stories, rather than a novel.
The first chapter, for instance, gives readers the heads-up that no case is too repugnant or hopeless for Rudd to take on. His client is a “brain damaged eighteen-year-old dropout” named Gardy who is accused of the sadistic double murder of two girls in a small town called Milo. (Grisham doesn’t identify Rudd’s locale, but best guess is that he is operating in the Southwest.) Tattooed, pierced and perpetually smirking, Gardy does not make a good impression in the courtroom. Rudd is the only lawyer for miles around willing to defend him, but not out of some misplaced chivalric legal impulse. Instead, Rudd relishes the challenge of a fixed fight, of having to “claw and raise hell in a courtroom where no one is listening.”
Here’s how Rudd sizes up the situation:
“My clients are almost always guilty, so I don’t waste a lot of time wringing my hands about whether they get what they deserve. In this case, though, Gardy is not guilty, not that it matters. It does not. What’s important in Milo these days is that Gardy gets convicted and sentenced to death and executed as soon as possible so that the town can feel better about itself and move on. Move on to where, exactly? Hell if I know, nor do I care.”
The down-and-dirty moves that Rudd performs in that Milo courtroom are not unlike the moves of those cage fighters he cheers on from ringside in his leisure time. It’s a mark of just how fleet-footed and inventive “Rogue Lawyer” is to say that the Gardy trial — which is pretty suspenseful — is the weakest story line in the novel. Riveting cases follow, including a fatally erroneous home invasion carried out by Homeland Security; a wild, eleventh-hour disruption in the fate of a death-row inmate; and the sudden appearance of a serial killer who draws Rudd into his orbit with promises to divulge the whereabouts of a police chief’s missing daughter.
In that last labyrinthine adventure, the desperate police force becomes more of a threat to Rudd than the serial killer. Rudd survives by holding fast to his somewhat soiled code of ethics: “A lawyer like me is forced to work in the shadows. My opponents are protected by badges, uniforms, and all the myriad trappings of government power. They are sworn and duty-bound to uphold the law, but since they cheat like hell it forces me to cheat even more.”
The biggest mystery that “Rogue Lawyer” poses is how Grisham, at this stage in his long writing career, can still devise all these distinctive characters, tricky legal predicaments and roguishly cheating ways to worm out of them. It’s one mystery we Grisham fans just want to appreciate, rather than solve.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 344 pp. $28.95