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John Grisham: Master of Legal Thrillers

Updated on January 27, 2018
John Grisham
John Grisham
House used in the TV movie, "A Painted House"
House used in the TV movie, "A Painted House"

Author John Grisham is perhaps the greatest contemporary Southern writer

Few authors have sold more books than John Grisham - about 250 million worldwide and translated into numerous languages. For ten years Grisham worked as a criminal lawyer, gathering the experience and legal acumen to write engrossing legal thrillers, arguably the best found anywhere in the world.

Grisham hails from the southern United States, the scene of many of his novels and nonfiction books. His first novel, A Time to Kill, was set in a small town in Mississippi in the 1980s. Many of Grisham’s books have been made into movies or TV productions. Yet Grisham’s fame hasn’t made him too uppity; he still teaches Sunday school at the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi!

Now let’s delve even deeper into the impressive career of John Grisham, one of America’s greatest living authors. Please keep reading.

Early Life

John Grisham was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1955. As a kid, Grisham wanted to be a baseball player but, as he grew up, he knew he lacked the talent to become a professional. On a related note, Grisham wrote a novel entitled A Painted House (2001), a story about a family of cotton farmers in Arkansas during the 1950s, and, yes, the kids in this unit loved to play baseball.

In 1977, Grisham graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Mississippi State University. Later, he graduated from law school, specializing in criminal law and practiced it for many years. In 1983, Grisham, a Democrat, was elected to the Mississippi state legislature, working as a legislator until 1990. When Grisham became a successful novelist, he gave up practicing law, except in 1996 when he fought for the family of a railroad worker who had been killed on the job, eventually winning a jury award of $683,500.

Grisham’s First Novel

A Time to Kill was Grisham’s initial literary work. Published in 1989, it took him three years to write the novel and 28 publishers rejected it before an unknown publisher agreed to give it a shot. The book is about a black man in Ford County, Mississippi who takes the law into his own hands when two white men rape and nearly beat to death his 10-year-old daughter. A Vietnam veteran, the black man uses an M-16 to murder the two men while they’re being escorted by the police through the courthouse after being arrested for the rape of the girl.

A white trial lawyer defends the black man, hoping to get him acquitted by reason of insanity. For the black people living in Ford County and surrounding areas, the case becomes a cause célèbre, though it also provokes the infamous Ku Klux Klan, which seems willing to commit any crime to make certain the black man is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

At first, A Time to Kill didn’t sell well, and wasn’t even published in paperback, but when Grisham became famous, it sold millions of copies. Grisham, in the author’s note to the paperback edition of the book published in 2009, wrote that this novel is his favorite. And, as great as this book is, one would think it’s the favorite of many of his fans.

The Innocent Man

John Grisham has also written nonfiction books. Perhaps the best of the bunch is The Innocent Man, a true story about a man who, after spending 11 years on Death Row, is finally exonerated and released from prison because of DNA and other evidence provided by the Innocence Project.

In 1988, Ronald Keith Williamson, a former minor league baseball player, was convicted for raping, beating and murdering a 21-year-old cocktail waitress, who had been attacked just blocks from Williamson’s home in Ada, Oklahoma. For five years the Ada police department tried to link Williamson and his drinking buddy Dennis Fitz to this heinous crime. The police department had no physical evidence, just forced “dream” confessions, some unreliable eyewitness testimonies, all of this administered by what has been called shoddy police work. Yet the Ada authorities still convicted Williamson and Fitz. Williamson got the death penalty, while Fitz received life in prison.

While rotting away on Death Row, Williamson was declared certifiably insane, and therefore could not have been legally executed anyway. Both Williamson and Fitz were released in April 1999. Eventually the real assailant was caught, tried and finally convicted in 2003.

Grisham’s book is a riveting account of the inequities and abuses of America’s criminal justice system, as many other “innocent men” have been exonerated by DNA evidence in recent years.

The Confession

John Grisham is opposed to the death penalty in the U.S. His novel The Confession definitely seems to address this issue in a major way. The story is about a black man, Donte Drumm, who’s convicted for raping and murdering a white girl in Texas. The only real evidence against Drumm is his confession, though it gradually becomes obvious the confession was coerced by the police.

Drumm is sentenced to die by lethal injection, even though another man comes forward the day of the execution claiming he’s the real murderer. The authorities execute Drumm anyway.

Calico Joe

In this novel, Grisham expresses his fondness for America’s national pastime. The story is about two players in Major League Baseball during the 1973 season. One is Warren Tracey, an aging pitcher, trying to hang on to a fading career, and the other is Joe Castle, a young phenom who electrifies baseball from the first time he comes to bat. When Tracey and Castle play against each other for the first time, the sparks fly, ending a career.

The story is told from the point of view of Paul Tracey, son of Warren Tracey. Throughout the story, Paul expresses intense dislike for his father, who is not an easy man to like. But, with Paul’s help, Warren eventually seeks redemption.

Playing for Pizza

This time Grisham shows his love for football, American style. Rick Dockery, who's spent his entire NFL career as a mediocre backup, finally gets a chance at stardom by playing for the Cleveland Browns. Because of injuries to the first and second string quarterbacks, Dockery plays the last 11 minutes of an AFC championship game in which the Browns are leading by 17 points. If the Browns win, they go to their first Super Bowl. Then Dockery plays the worst game imaginable and the Browns lose, with Dockery becoming the biggest goat in NFL history.

Afterwards, Dockery tries to revive his flagging career by playing QB for the Parma Panthers, a semi-pro team in Parma, Italy. The Panthers aren’t great but they have heart and would do anything to finally win the Italian Super Bowl, and it's Dockery’s goal to help them win it.

The Litigators

David Zinc, fed up with working 100-hour weeks, quits a high-powered law firm and joins Finley and Figg, a boutique company of ambulance chasers. Actually, these guys, Oscar Finley and Wally Figg, will do just about anything to drum up business, including advertise their services on bingo cards. Zinc soon learns that Finley and Figg have become interested in some mass tort litigation involving Krayoxx, a cholesterol drug developed by the pharmaceutical giant, Varrick Labs. Apparently Krayoxx is harmful, though nobody knows for certain.

Finley, Figg and Zinc begin looking for friends or relatives of people who have used Krayoxx and died, and also try to locate people currently taking the drug. Once this is done, Finley and Figg sue Varrick Labs, which seems eager to litigate – too eager. Unfortunately, the tiny firm is greatly overmatched against Varrick Labs, which wants to prove Krayoxx is safe. This David vs. Goliath tale keeps you interested until the last page.

The Racketeer

Malcolm Bannister, a former lawyer, rots in prison while serving a lengthy sentence in a federal penitentiary. Embittered because the feds had given him a long sentence for what he regarded as a petty crime, Bannister is determined to stick it to the feds. After apparently listening to a sordid tale of murder as told by a fellow inmate, Bannister tells the FBI he knows who murdered Judge Raymond Fawcett and his secretary. Bannister gets out of prison by fingering the inmate and begins a second life with a new identity.

But Bannister isn’t finished with his new life on the outside. First, he must find the real murderer of Judge Fawcett and then trick him into telling Bannister where he stashed the millions of dollars in gold he had stolen from Fawcett after murdering him.

Sycamore Row

Published in 2013, Sycamore Row is a kind of sequel to A Time to Kill, Grisham’s first novel. Jake Brigance lives in Ford County Mississippi during the 1980s, the scene of his defense of Carl Lee Hailey in a sensational murder trial that had taken place three years before. Brigance’s latest case involves the will of Seth Hubbard, an old white man who, dying of cancer, commits suicide after handwriting a will that he mails to Brigance. This new will nullifies the will Hubbard had created years before. The main difference in this new will is that Hubbard leaves nearly all of his money – 24 million dollars – to his black housekeeper. But Hubbard’s relatives think they deserve the money as specified in the prior will.

A court battle ensues and it’s Brigance’s job to defend the handwritten will against the lawyers of the relatives of Seth Hubbard. The reason Seth Hubbard leaves most of his money to his black housekeeper pertains to an incident that happened at Sycamore Row many years before.

Rogue Lawyer

This is the story of attorney Sebastian Rudd, who will take just about any case. He’ll even defend someone for free, if he thinks justice must be served. Rudd is certainly an unusual attorney, as he has no office and belongs to no law firm; his place of business is a bulletproof van and his driver a heavily armed body guard (and perhaps Rudd’s only friend.)

Rudd needs a bodyguard and must take a pistol with him at all times, because he defends infamous people - serial killers or gangsters, and for this the police and prosecuting attorneys revile and often threaten him. Yes, you could say Sebastian Rudd has a very bad rep! In this book, Rudd defends several people accused of committing serious crimes and, along the way, he’s quick to decry the unethical tactics of the police and prosecuting attorneys. Rudd also hates – or at least distrusts - insurance companies, banks, the government and corporations. Sebastian Rudd is about as cynical as they come.

The Whisperer

This book involves the criminal investigation of the Honorable Claudia McDover, who may be the most corrupt judge in the history of the United States! Lacy Stoltz, an investigator for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct, gets a tip about Judge McDover from a man named Greg Myers, who says he has an informer, known as the Whisperer, who feeds him information about McDover's shady dealings, particularly regarding her involvement in any legal cases dealing with the Tappacola Indians, who own a very lucrative casino.

Stoltz eventually learns that Judge McDover and the Tappacola may be in cahoots with the so-called Coast Mafia, a gang of local thugs, the leader of which nobody can identify. The plot thickens when Lacy Stoltz, while driving her car on Tappacola land, is struck head-on by a truck, seriously injuring her and killing a fellow investigator riding with her.

Camino Island

This novel isn’t one of Grisham’s legal thrillers; it’s about writers, manuscripts, publishers and other related subjects – but with great insight therein, as one would expect from John Grisham. At the beginning of the novel, some thieves steal five original manuscripts from the library of Princeton University. All of these priceless works, insured for $25 million, were written in longhand by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Remember The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon?) These manuscripts hit the black market and nobody knows for sure where they are – for awhile.

The authorities eventually theorize that the owner of a bookstore has purchased and hidden the manuscripts in his house on Camino Island in Florida. Then they enlist the help of a struggling, unemployed writer, who suffers from writer’s block, hoping she may help recover Fitzgerald’s handwritten literary works.

Books and Movies

John Grisham’s second novel, The Firm, did considerably better than his first; it was on the New York Times best seller list for 47 weeks and became the best selling novel of 1991. The story is about a young lawyer who gets a job at a top law firm, seemingly a perfect place to work, and then discovers it’s run by the mob. The Firm is then made into a movie starring Tom Cruise in 1993.

That same year another movie is released based on a John Grisham novel. The Pelican Brief is another legal crime thriller about a young law student and a journalist who investigate the murder of two Supreme Court Justices. The law student (Julia Roberts) learns that the motive for the crimes was inadvertently provided by the so-called Pelican Brief she had written. Now she becomes a target, and so is anybody else with whom she confides regarding the nature of this legal brief.

Other than these two books, many more of Grisham’s novels have been made into movies: The Client (1994), A Time to Kill (1996), The Chamber (1996), The Rainmaker (1997), The Gingerbread Man (1998), A Painted House 2003 (a TV film), Runaway Jury (2003), Christmas with the Kranks (2004) and The Last Juror (2013).

Incidentally, Grisham also writes a series of books for children involving Theodore Boone, kid lawyer. Grisham said this is his attempt to capture some of the market for the Harry Potter books.


Reading John Grisham's legal thrillers is definitely a great way for average folks to learn about America's legal system. You just can't believe what is legal! Anyway, John Grisham will probably write many more legal thrillers and other books of an engrossing nature, fictional and otherwise, before he passes on to that great library in the sky. What a resource this talented fellow has become!

Please leave a comment.

© 2011 Kelley


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    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 5 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, ytsenoh. "A Time to Kill" is definitely a great book and perhaps Grisham's best. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a timeless American classic, of course, and yes I've read both. Later!

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 5 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      Years ago, Grisham was one of my favorite authors and perhaps that was because I work in a law firm. I had a collection of his books and after a time, they began to seem the same to me. The one book that stands out of all of them I read was "A Time to Kill," which you have indicated to be his first book. I feel this book is one of his best pieces of work. I did not like the movies made from his other books, but I also think books are generally better. Movies like "To Kill A Mockingbird" would be an exception. If you haven't read "A Time to Kill," it is well worth the time to take. Grisham has done a great job with his genre, however, which is evidenced with his success. Very nice hub. Thanks.

    • Highvoltagewriter profile image

      William Benner 6 years ago from Savannah GA.

      Great hub, thanks for sharing!

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, redwriterbb. I'd love to have that autographed copy of "The Confession," which I have not read, but I soon will. Later!

    • redwriterbb profile image

      redwriterbb 6 years ago from Norfolk/Virginia Beach Area

      I have an autographed copy of The Confession. This is a great book. Glad to see your article about Grisham here!

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Ed Michaels. I just read "A Time to Kill," and it had the dramatic arc common in movies and, of course, it was made into a movie, which I hope to see one of these days, so I can compare the two. Later!

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      I don't know...Grisham is not on my list of contemporary great novelists. His books do translate to screen well, though; sometimes they read as if they were intended just for this purpose.