Monday, December 15, 2014

1996: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children.

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 28 novels, four children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.  

The Book:

1st edition cover

Length: 401 pages
Subject/Genre:litigation/legal thriller

In typical Grisham fashion, The Runaway Jury focuses on a trial in Mississippi, in this case, a product liability suit in Biloxi against the Pynex tobacco company.  Like his previous novel, The Rainmaker, this is a story of an unpopular, corrupt, and powerful organization being fought down in the courtroom.  As you might expect, the tobacco companies are in cahoots to prevent a plaintiff´s verdict, fearing future litigation, and they don't play by the rules.  The lavishly funded Rankin Fitch does all there dirty work outside the court.  But in this case, something else is afoot.  One juror, who goes by the name Nicholas Easter, isn't who he says he is.  And with outside help from the mysterious Marlee, it's clear he's setting himself up to swing the jury whichever way he wants.  But whether for profit or private motivation is unknown...

A little context.  I've frequently compared Grisham novels to episodes of Law & Order, and this included the ripped-from-the-headlines premises.  Tobacco litigation was reaching a peak in the 1990s, with not only individuals, but states suing the tobacco industry.  In 1994, Mississippi became the first of over 40 states to sue the manufacturers for health care costs incurred by the state.  And, as opposed to the individual cases, the states were having a good degree of success in the courts.  In an interesting sidenote, two years after The Runaway Jury  was published, the tobacco industry and the U.S. government entered the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.  In essence, the tobacco companies pay billions to the states and fund some anti-smoking non-profits, meanwhile the states don't sue and private lawsuits against the tobacco companies become more difficult.

I have trouble reviewing Grisham novels because they're always pretty much what they appear on the surface.  It's like reviewing an episode of CSI, where the only meaningful yardstick is other episodes of the same or similar shows.  Grisham is entertaining, easy and quick to read, and you know exactly what you´ll get going in.  Curled up on a bunk bed in Rome with a bad cold, Grisham was a good choice.  But I feel like I keep having to reiterate that he keeps approaching interesting questions and grand themes but always stops short and doesn't actually explore them at all.  The plot of The Runaway Jury would be great for discussions about things like the difference between legal justice and moral justice, and whether corruption can fight corruption.  But of course this is left to the reader as an exercise.  

The Runaway Jury was adapted for the screen in 2003.

"Drop the 'the.'  It's cleaner."

The films starred Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, and Rachel Weisz.  It also replaces the cigarette companies with gun manufacturers. 

Anyway, as I think I'll be repeating a lot in the upcoming reviews, if you want something light and entertaining, feel free to read a Grisham novel.  If not, don't.  Also, go watch Thank You for Smoking.

Bestsellers of 1996:

1. The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
2. Executive Orders by Tom Clancy
3. Desperation by Stephen King
4. Airframe by Michael Crichton
5. The Regulators by Stephen King
6. Malice by Danielle Steel
7. Silent Honor by Danielle Steel
8. Primary Colors by Anonymous
9. Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell
10. The Tenth Insight by James Redfield 

Also Published in 1996:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace


Grisham, John. The Runaway Jury. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Print.