Originally, there was one type of John Grisham book — the tense legal thriller. When “A Time To Kill” was largely ignored and “The Firm” became a huge success, Grisham took the lesson to heart, and made a lot of money following the formula.
But then came “A Painted House” in 2001, and there was a second type of Grisham book — the character-driven story. To be fair, it wasn’t entirely new; “A Time To Kill” had elements of both, but these books were “A Time To Kill” minus “The Firm,” character pieces without the thriller aspects. (Doubt the change? “A Painted House” was the first Grisham book title not to begin with “The” since he used “A” for his first book, with nine “The”s in-between. Case closed.) Many of these are his most fun, books like “Skipping Christmas” and “Playing For Pizza.” These books, generally published in a smaller size than the thrillers, tend to be my favorites; I can usually, quite literally, judge a John Grisham book by its cover.
I’m not entirely sure when the third type of Grisham book was born. It was definitely full-born in 2008’s “The Appeal.” It had its roots in 2006’s “The Innocent Man,” but, being non-fiction, that one probably can’t be used as evidence for conviction. There may have been traces as early as 2003’s “The King of Torts.” But this type of book is the sermon in book form; the book that exists more to make a point than to entertain.
And it’s this final category in which “The Confession“falls. It’s a strong effort in both areas — making a point and largely failing to entertain. It’s Grisham’s Grishamization of Grisham’s “The Innocent Man.” His non-fiction book presented his case about the death penalty quite cogently, but it wasn’t an original Grisham story. Here, he creates a color-by-number fictional version, making up his own story but not straying too far from the beats of the earlier work. The result is largely unengaging.
Grisham’s early thrillers were successful not only because of what was happening to their protagonists, but for the extent to which he made the reader care about what was happening to those protagonists. He involves the reader in the characters, engages the reader in their stories. Having read “The Confession,” it’s still not entirely clear who the book’s protagonist, in fact, was.
In a non-fiction work, it’s one thing to take a just-the-facts this-person-did-this-and-then-that-person-did-that approach. In a novel, it’s another. Grisham’s greatest fault in “The Confession” is failing to realize that his fictionalization doesn’t allow him the same leeway “The Innocent Man” did. The seeds of a good story are here, but there’s nothing to make the reader care. Grisham actually did a far better job re-imagining “The Innocent Man” in fiction before he wrote the non-fiction book, with his fourth book, “The Chamber.”
I don’t always agree with John Grisham’s politics, but I respect that he knows what he’s talking about. His opinions are informed and thought-out. And I respect his desire to use the pulpit his success has given him to speak out on things that are important. However, he would be much more effective doing so if his issue-driven books were more entertaining. The problem isn’t with the author; it’s in the decisions he’s making here. Grisham is better than this.
Personally, I would love for him to spend more of his time on character-driven books like “The Last Juror” and “Bleachers.” But if he wants to continue writing issue-driven books, he should figure out a way to make them more engaging.
In fact, I might recommend he see what he could learn by reading some books written back in the ’90s that are similar to his in style, but more entertaining and engaging — some books by a guy named John Grisham.