It’s instructive to look back on The Appeal in the wake of the changes in American politics since it was published, because with this book Grisham appeared to be headed in a more issue-oriented direction, something closer to the kind of legal thrillers Richard North Patterson produces, aimed at dissecting one issue. If anything, Grisham is far more efficient writer than Patterson; he constructs a story like a well-designed machine: the parts fit together, they generally mesh seamlessly, and they work quickly in sequence to get the job done.
The Appeal is no exception. The set-up is brilliant: a husband and wife team of lawyers in Hattiesburg Mississippi win a $41 million judgement against Krane Chemical, whose dumping of toxic waste poisoned the water supply of an entire town, causing dozens of deaths by horrible diseases. Krane’s lawyers, of course, appeal, and know their appeal has an ace in the hole: the Mississippi Supreme Court usually supports plaintiffs’ rights by a 5-4 majority. But judges in Mississippi are elected, and the most solid of the five-member majority, a divorced woman, is up for re-election. Krane owner Carl Trudeau has been approached by a political consultant who specialises in winning such elections, and his guys have found the perfect candidate, a good-looking establishment lawyer with no courtroom experience, and hence no trail; an empty suit who believes in God and big business and can be packaged and sold as the solid candidate of the ‘family-values’ right, even to families whose neighbours are blighted by toxic waste.
The story is a thriller, even if the crime is corporate, and Grisham makes it clear that Krane is guilty and that their lawyers have already lied, suborned perjury, hidden evidence, and maybe even made witnesses disappear. In that The Appeal bears some resemblance to the non-fiction thriller A Civil Action, whose title was ironic comment in that its civil actions were, in fact, criminal.
This twist here is that Trudeau has a second agenda; as the lawsuit causes his company’s stock to tank, he sees a chance to buy it up, taking firmer control and at the same time ringing up massive profits. He needs them; his latest trophy wife is a big spender.
Most of these characters, as usual in Grisham, are figures of cardboard, whose function is to be what we expect them to be. Unlike Patterson, he wstes little time trying to get deep into their heads with omniscient presence. Our heroes, Wes and Mary Grace Payton, are even thinner than his typical lawyers-battling-the-system. In contrast, some of the tort lawyers are entertaining, the beleaguered judge has some depth, and Trudeau himself is interesting, if only for the sympathy Grisham seems to think he deserves for his bad choice in wives. Characters are not action for Grisham, action is character, and his description of the campaign is both thrilling and all too real in an era where candidates are ever more manufactured, where politics revolves not around policy but emotive social issues, and where schmucks like John Roberts sit on the Supreme Court force-feeding the rich and powerful and screwing up Obama’s inaugural oath.
Grisham’s heroes are usually problematic, because they never see that the barrel full of bad apples is spoiling the legal profession for the occasional ripe one that falls from the tree. And in this novel, he had also spring-loaded his plot with not one, but two, sets of tortuous (in the legal sense) events, which are there to create irony as much as influence the plot, and build up to a final, accurate twist that almost saves the coincidental artifice of the set up. That sounds complicated, but the odds of a protagonist in this story then facing a situation where he needs recourse to tort law himself are probably pretty long.
With this book, Grisham appears to have decided that he is going to be America’s new Upton Sinclair, and with the atrocious character of both the 2000 and 2004 US presidential elections, there was an opening for such a writer. Anyway, it beats suing Oliver Stone every time some yoyo uses Natural Born Killers as an excuse. Grisham writes more fluently than Sinclair ever did, but though his heart may be in the right place, his lawyer’s brain has yet to follow. The legal system isn’t the solution, nor even part of the solution, to America’s political problems. It is, at heart, the problem.