The Last Juror by John Grisham

March 3, 2009

the-last-juror I’ve been a John Grisham fan ever since I read The Firm when I was in high school, but I have to admit that I haven’t always liked his stuff. I do, however, appreciate the fact that he’s not content to rest on his laurels and churn out formulaic legal thrillers one after another in order to keep raking in the cash. He has experimented with nonfiction (The Innocent Man), comedy (Skipping Christmas), and even sports (Playing for Pizza) to varying degrees of success.

With The Last Juror, Grisham again goes off the beaten path. Though the title sounds like it belongs in the legal thriller category and though I’ve classified it that way for my blog, it’s more of a chronicle of life in a small town than a thriller per se. The overall effect is good at times, but far too uneven to sustain interest throughout the novel.

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Willie Traynor is a 23-year-old Syracuse University dropout who somehow ends up getting a job at The Ford County Times, the only weekly newspaper in the town of Clanton, Mississippi. After working for a short time, Willie realizes that the owner, Mr. Wilson Caudle, has so thoroughly mismanaged the paper that subscriptions have tailed off and the entity is very close to bankruptcy. After giving the situation some serious thought, Willie decides to buy the newspaper with a loan from his rich grandmother in Tennessee. He then takes over as lead writer and editor, while maintaining a small auxiliary staff.

As Willie begins settling into southern life as a business owner, he learns that his position as editor of the only local newspaper makes him a pretty important man. This becomes patently clear after a brutal rape and murder is committed by Danny Padgitt, the son of a wealthy family that has been involved in bribery, bootlegging, drug running, and political corruption in Ford County for nearly a hundred years. Usually the Padgitts are untouchable as far as the law goes, but this crime is far too outrageous for Danny to escape scot free. And Willie, through his newspaper, intends to see that Danny gets prosecuted as he should.

The rest of the novel then goes on to describe not only the trial itself, but the way the verdict ends up affecting nearly everyone in the town. Grisham also takes time to show the developing friendship between Willie and an elderly black woman named Miss Callie Ruffin, who ends up being the last juror selected for the Padgitt trial. Along the way, Grisham builds up a lot of suspense and hints at a major twist somewhere, but that never materialized.

My Reaction: I really like John Grisham’s writing style, so it was easy to be drawn into The Last Juror — at least initially. I was intrigued by the author’s description of small town life in rural Mississippi, and was sure that the Padgitt trial would prove to be the central event in the novel. After all, it was called The Last Juror, so I figured that there would be a showdown of some sort between the Padgitts and Miss Callie.

But Grisham inexplicably chose to skirt around the trial for the most part, talking about it in an almost indirect way and dropping the issue for long stretches. In fact, this novel was actually more about Willie Traynor’s 9-year tenure as owner and editor of The Ford County Times than about the Padgitt trial or the last juror, so the title is actually quite misleading.

On the whole, I felt that Grisham went off in too many different directions with The Last Juror, resulting in a plot that felt extremely disjointed and uneven. It probably would have been better for him to approach this one as a straight legal thriller instead of going for the folksy small town angle, but what do I know. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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