It will be very interesting to see Grisham apply his storytelling genius to a plot borrowed from true crime, particularly where the crime occurred decades ago. It may be the cure his writing needs given his slow backslide from the dazzling sophomore novel The Firm on down into poorly reviewed suspense.
Grisham’s book The Innocent Man: A True Story will come out in October. Even before it’s published, it’s cracked the Amazon Top 1,000 books. The story concerns one Ronald Keith Williamson, who was convicted in the 1980s of raping and killing a waitress in Oklahoma. He was nearly executed for the murder before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999. He died in 2004.
Maybe you like me have gambled the price of a paperback on Grisham in the last five or eight years. Maybe you agree with the acidic critic who said one of Grisham’s recent books exhibited “a shocking degree of laziness.” Having spent $8 on one paperback, The Broker, and having lamented how many library fines I could have paid with $8, I have to reluctantly agree.
But… I think this one is going to be good. I'm nearly as excited as Grisham's number one fan. From the official book description: “If you believe that in America you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, this book will disturb you. If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you.”
I bet it will, and frankly, I have reached the point where I am ready to be infuriated. (To throw out one example -- the murder conviction of Father Gerald Robinson still keeps me up at night.)
Also consider what Grisham brings to true crime. He is the master at holding back information and, late in a story, revealing critical truths that turn things on their heads. Every book is a nail-biter, even if the fiction plots haven’t always made pure sense. Per famous fiction agent Donald Maass:
One of the greatest crafters of high-tension stories working today is John Grisham. As with many best-selling authors, it is fashionable to put down his writing: His prose is plain… his scene setting is perfunctory to nonexistent… his characters are cardboard cutouts. There is some truth to those charges, but one cannot deny that Grisham compels his readers to turn the pages. His gift for building tension has made him the country’s best-selling author….
Criticize Grisham if you must, but there is this to learn from him: Tension on every page is a technique that keeps readers glued to a novel, even in the absence of artistic prose, rich atmosphere, complex characters and lofty themes.
With an eye-popping plot borrowed from true crime, a promise of an emotional experience, and the theme of redemption for a wrongfully convicted man, this book might deserve to be a bestseller. And maybe there’s enough redemption left over to save the author as well.