Such creative longevity is not that unusual in the suspense genre, but what is rare is Grisham’s feat of keeping up the pace of producing, on average, a novel a year (in 2017 he published two) without a notable diminishment of ingenuity or literary quality. Dame Agatha Christie, who barely paused between books to sharpen pencils during her near-50-year marathon mystery career, is another such marvel.
Which brings us to “The Guardians,” Grisham’s latest terrific novel. Grisham’s main character here is a so-called “innocence lawyer,” a workaholic attorney-and-Episcopal-priest named Cullen Post. Post has trimmed his life down to the barest of essentials, living in spartan quarters above the nonprofit Guardian Ministries, his workplace in Savannah, Ga. The book focuses on Post’s investigation into the wrongful conviction of a black man named Quincy Miller who was set up to take the fall for the murder of a white lawyer in a small Florida town some 22 years before the opening of this story. (In his life away from his writing desk, Grisham serves on the board of directors of The Innocence Project.)
Post’s efforts to ferret out exculpatory evidence in this cold case put him in grave danger because, for one thing, the shadowy drug cartel responsible for the murder has been known to hold grisly parties in isolated jungle locales south of the border. In the dead center of this novel, Post hears a cautionary tale from a traumatized survivor of one of these gatherings. This account calls upon Grisham to summon up his heretofore unrealized inner Caligula.
In an affecting backstory, Post recalls his early career as a public defender; but the grotesque contradictions of that job — particularly Post’s final assignment to defend a depraved teenage rapist and murderer — brought on a nervous breakdown. After a sincere “come-to-Jesus” moment during his recovery, Post was ordained and began serving with a prison ministry, which led him to innocence work and eventually Guardian Ministries. A trim four-person operation, Guardian Ministries consists of Post; an underpaid litigator who’s a single mother of boys; an exoneree named Frankie who’s turned private investigator; and the nonprofit’s founder, a former business executive who, similar to Post, had a conversion experience and dedicated her life to righting wrongs of the criminal justice system.
That said, “The Guardians” is nuanced in its moral vision: Post acknowledges that most of the prisoners who contact him alleging wrongful convictions are, in fact, guilty; but it’s the thousands of others who have become his vocation. “It’s fairly easy to convict an innocent man and virtually impossible to exonerate one,” Post reminds a potential client. So far, the team has exonerated eight prisoners.
Quincy Miller may just become the ninth. His fate will depend on a relentless re-investigation conducted by Post and his colleagues and some strong-arming of jailhouse snitches and other witnesses who gave false testimony years ago. The lawyer Quincy was convicted of killing turns out to have had ties to a drug cartel. So, too, does the now-retired sheriff who was in charge of the investigation 22 years ago. Post knows he’ll eventually have to visit the secluded scene of the crime, Seabrook, Fla., but he wisely hesitates. Thinking out loud with a colleague, Post says: “Our clients are in prison because someone else pulled the trigger. They’re still out here, laughing because the cops nailed the wrong guy. The last thing they want is an innocence lawyer digging through the cold case.”
In his titanic efforts to turn justice denied for Miller into justice delayed, Post courts danger both human and supernatural. The climax of “The Guardian” slyly nods to many a classic Nancy Drew adventure: Post and Frankie steel themselves to break into a boarded-up haunted house, climb up into its dank attic and unearth (as Nancy would say) a “clew” that just may decide Miller’s fate — all before the drug gang gets wind of their location. Post is a driven and likable loner whom, I hope, Grisham will bring back in future novels. After all, as “The Guardians” makes clear, there’s plenty of work left for an innocence lawyer to do.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic of the NPR program, “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 384 pp. $29.95