Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Last Juror

The Last Juror
Author: John Grisham
Random House, 2004
505 pages

Once upon a time, I was a big John Grisham fan. I loved A Time To Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker and a couple of his other early books. But I got tired of the lawyer stories, and even more tired of the main characters ending up on some Caribbean beach, sipping daiquiris or whatever while their recently-swindled million dollars sits in a Cayman Islands bank. Then there was the Christmas story that was so awful, it really did me in, and I swore off Grisham.

So when a co-worker gave me The Last Juror, I gracefully declined. "I don't do lawyer novels," I said. "Oh, this one's different," my co-worker promised. It's about a reporter."

Indeed it is. It's the early 1970s. The main character is twenty-three years old and has recently moved to Clanton, Mississippi from upstate New York, where he was on some sort of extended undergraduate plan at Syracuse but dropped out when rich Grandma decided not to support him anymore. Grandma's in Memphis, so the main character (eventually he submits to being called 'Willie' by his Southern friends) heads down South in his Spitfire car. One of the annoying things about this book is Willie's continuous references to "my Spitfire." I'm sorry, but after the fifth or six time, "my car" would have been sufficient. 

(Speaking of Syracuse, one of the things I like about Grisham is how he calls universities by their common name. So Duke University is just plain Duke. And Purdue University is just plain Purdue. OK, back to the story.)

At first, Willie is just a reporter for the local newspaper. But circumstances change and suddenly . . . gasp . . . he's the Editor and Owner. As he settles into his new home in small town Mississippi, he takes a look around and sees how different things are from where he came from in New York. There are lots of stereotypical Southern characters and multiple references to Southern food, e.g., BBQ, corn bread, pecan pie . . . 

Maybe it's not really a lawyer story, but there are lawyers in the book, and judges, and criminals, and court scenes.  The basic premise is that a young man from a family of reclusive Southern mafia-types is convicted for the rape and murder of a young mother, and before he is sentenced, he threatens the jury. Some of the jurors can't bring it to themselves to give him the death penalty, so he gets life in prison. But gets paroled after only nine years. After he's out, jurors start dropping like flies. Of course, as things happen, Willie's writing all about it in his paper.

I didn't particularly like Willie as a character. He had certain characteristics that I admire. He has convictions, and is quite courageous in putting them into print, regardless of their popularity. But there was just something "empty" about him. I expected the vacuum to be filled by the end of the story, but it wasn't.

My favorite character was Miss Callie, the mother of eight children - seven of them with PhDs. Miss Callie is someone who becomes a really good friend and counselor to Willie - and I will leave it at that to avoid spoilers. 

Two of the secondary characters in The Last Juror seemed oddly familiar to me, so I had to investigate to be sure. Remember the Donald Sutherland character in the movie A Time to Kill? (Crotchety old lawyer?) His name was Lucien Wilbanks and he's the defense attorney for the rapist/murderer in The Last Juror. The other character is Harry Rex Vonner, the alcoholic lawyer played by Oliver Platt in A Time to Kill. Just a little Grisham trivia for you.

It was a light read, entertaining in places, and it went quickly. Great writing? Not really. But it made me look forward to my upcoming trip to North Carolina and all the good Southern food I'll be eating when I get there.

Rating: 2.5 stars. Sorry, John.