Review: John Grisham’s “The Confession”

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 Confessionfalls. 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.

Crime And Punishment

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Jails And Prisons.”

Jail Cell

Image by abardwell via Flickr

Having just finished reading John Grisham’s latest sermon-in-novel-form and having been reminded of a conversation we had not that long ago at my Bible study group, I’m going to go a little further afield with this one, and deal with criminal justice in general.

Specifically, Grisham’s The Confessiondeals a lot with the death penalty, writing a fictional account of an innocent man scheduled to be executed. Two major issues rose to the surface for me — is it right to kill someone as punishment, and is it right to take the risk of accidentally executing innocent people?

The former was the issue we discussed at my Bible study group. But, to me, the issue of appropriate punishment is asking the wrong question. I very much believe the death penalty should never be used. I’m also in favor of the death penalty.

I’m less concerned with what happens after crimes are committed than in preventing crime.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the former, only that I think, as our society, our focus should be more on the latter, both for the sake of potential victims and potential criminals. A lot of that is cultural; we should be fostering an environment that prevents people with opportunities that are more appealing than crime, and should be instilling values that encourage people to make other choices. But part of that should be making crime as unappealing an option as possible.

After the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the entire world pretty much agreed that the weapons used were horrific, and that atomic and nuclear weapons should never be used again. We proceeded to build arsenals of those weapons, not so that they would be used but so that they wouldn’t. We created a culture in which the cost of using nuclear weapons far outweighed any potential benefit. And it worked.

The death penalty should, ideally, work the same way. It should serve as the ultimate deterrent. The price that isn’t worth paying.  To the extent that it fails, the question should be why does it fail, and how can we as a society create a better deterrent?

And, along those lines, I have a hard time with the idea that society has blood on its hands when someone is executed for committing a capital offense. The death penalty is not a surprise. It’s a cultural contract. If you live in a death penalty state, as a citizen, you have a societal contract with the state that if you commit certain actions, you could lose your life. If you then choose to commit those actions, you are choosing to forfeit your life.

If someone gets drunk and gets in a car, they do so knowing that bad things could happen. If they die, society understands it’s because that person made a choice that resulted in their death. If they died by running into a utility pole, no one would argue that society was wrong to build utility poles. People would understand that the death was not the fault of the utility pole, but rather the result of the choices that led to the car hitting the pole. The death penalty is a utility pole. It doesn’t not instigate deaths, but deaths result when people make choices that run them into it. Society no more has blood on its hands for having a death penalty than it does for building utility poles — you should no more commit a capital offense than you should drink and drive, and if you choose to do so, the results of your actions are on your hands. In an ideal society, neither utility poles nor the death penalty would be involved in any deaths.

The issue of tolerances is the more interesting one to me, and one I’m not really sure I know my feelings on. If you have a death penalty, you have the possibility that innocent people are executed because of that. If that happens, none of the things I said before apply — that person would not be dying as a result of their own actions, nor would they have done anything the death penalty should or could have deterred. That said, going back to the utility pole analogy, people are killed by utility poles in accidents that are not their fault, and yet we still don’t say society should stop building utility poles. It’s within our tolerances. We’re willing to tolerate some number of accidental deaths because of the benefits we get. The same issue is true for law enforcement in general. Innocent people die in instances involving using legal use of deadly force or in high-speed pursuits. But our tolerances allow that. I’m not going to do the research now, but I would imagine the number of alleged innocent deaths from capital punishment are a tiny fraction of total alleged innocent deaths caused by law enforcement and criminal justice. It’s a question of what we think is worth it. It’s a question of what our tolerances are.

Our cultural tolerances intrigue me at times, and were brought out in sharp relief for me in February 2003. At the beginning of the month, seven people were killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry. Toward the end of the month, 100 people were killed in a fire at a Great White nightclub concert. Guess which one prompted people to say that we as a nation needed to make changes? Seven people die in the cause of space exploration, and it gets questioned. A hundred people die so that pyrotechnics can pave the way for “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” and that’s a tragic but acceptable loss.  I’m not saying society should have demanded changes because of the fire. But I do believe we should be as willing to accept purposeful deaths as we are purposeless ones.