It’s been a long time since I read a John Grisham novel. I used to be quite fond of his legal thrillers, even though they consist of lots of exposition and flat characters. In all of his novels, Grisham writes with a sense of righteous fury at injustice, and sympathy for the little people who are so easily ground beneath the wheels of the system. Unfortunately, as he became the sort of author whose books are routinely made into Hollywood movies, the scope of his plots became larger but the stories somehow became smaller. For me, his first novel, A Time to Kill, a courtroom drama set in a small Southern town in which a lawyer defends a black man who killed the white men who raped his daughter, is still probably his best. (In his author’s notes, Grisham writes about how he himself, as a practicing lawyer, has thrown up in the courthouse men’s room, just as the defense attorney in A Time to Kill does, and that tension was very evident in that book.)
Later he moved on to big criminal/industrial conspiracies, and while those make for good Tom Cruise vehicles, even the most sympathetic characters are overshadowed by the massive forces Grisham is trying to expose in his books.
Thus, I found the The Appeal to be a lackluster potboiler of a novel in which quite honestly, Grisham seems to be phoning it in. Especially since it’s basically a toned-down version of The Pelican Brief. Both books are about a wealthy industrialist who tries to stack the court with judges favorable to his interests in anticipation of a huge lawsuit that’s coming their way. In The Pelican Brief, it’s the U.S. Supreme Court, and the villains have two Supreme Court justices murdered; in The Appeal, it’s the Mississippi Supreme Court, and rather than assassinating the obstreperous judge, the villains remove her by mounting a massively-funded smear campaign, putting their chosen candidate in her place.
(For those not familiar with U.S. judicial politics: while federal Supreme Court justices are lifetime political appointments, some states require state supreme court justices to be elected, or periodically reelected even if appointed by the governor.)
The first part of the The Appeal gives us the background on the suit against Krane Chemical, which has been dumping carcinogenic chemicals in a small Mississippi town, resulting in skyrocketing cancer rates. The victims are represented by a plucky husband-and-wife law firm that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and there’s no room for ambiguity in the reader’s mind as to whether or not Krane Chemical is guilty. But as if a chemical company poisoning a small town wasn’t black and white enough, Grisham gives us Carl Trudeau, the billionaire CEO of Krane Chemical, who all but twirls his mustache and throws puppies off the balcony of his New York penthouse balcony as he sneers his way through the book vowing that not one dime of compensation will ever be paid to “those ignorant rednecks." We get irrelevant glimpses of his family life (vapid, anorexic trophy wife, neglected lifestyle-accessory daughter), and then we move to Mississippi, where Trudeau hires a very special private firm to handpick someone to put on the Mississippi Supreme Court just in time for his corporation’s appeal to be heard there.
The next part of the book is about the election. Judge Sheila McCarthy, a moderate who’s made no waves but has a tendency to rule in favor of the underdog, is painted as a liberal judge who will destroy your family, take away your guns, and legalize gay marriage. (The private firm actually hires a gay couple from Chicago to move to Mississippi, establish legal residency, and apply for a marriage license, which of course is promptly rejected, leading to a lawsuit for the sole purpose of putting gay marriage on the radar during the election.) So the airwaves are full of guns, gays, abortion, and pornography, even though the chances of the state supreme court changing the status quo on any of those issues is zero. It’s all quite over-the-top, and yet frighteningly familiar.
While the book’s Wikipedia page points out the similarity of the plot to a real-life case in West Virginia, the attack on the unsuspecting Sheila McCarthy is in some ways reminiscent of the unseating of California Chief Justice Rose Bird in the 1980s. Rose Bird was the first California Supreme Court Justice to lose her seat in an election; while the campaign mounted against her was ostensibly because of her reluctance to enforce the death penalty, the money that went into defeating her came mostly from big businesses who found her rulings unfavorable to their interests. The fictional campaign against the fictional Sheila McCarthy, however, is a much more one-dimensional narrative.
Meanwhile, just in case you forgot what a villain Trudeau is, when he’s not engineering the bankruptcy of the plaintiff’s attorneys, he’s pushing his own company’s stock price downward with rumors of bankruptcy so he can buy it up at a discount, in anticipation of a dramatic leap in value when the lawsuit gets dismissed by the state supreme court. At one point, he literally cackles and rubs his hands together in glee after another successful round of villainous shenanigans.
After the election, Ron Fisk, the chump selected to be Krane’s boy on the bench, promptly rules against an elderly victim of nursing home abuse, just so the reader is clear on who the bad guys are, again. Several more cases of this nature are described: maimed children, medical malpractice, etc., all of them egregiously black and white, and all smacked down by the new court, with Fisk tipping the balance towards the dark side.
Justice Fisk is not actually a bad person, and is completely unaware of the fact that he’s been bought and paid for by a New York industrialist. He’s just a useful idiot who believed the mysterious backers who told him they wanted him on the bench because he’s such a good, conservative Christian. He’s shocked -- shocked! -- at the attack ads his people run against McCarthy, and the revelation of all the out-of-state money funding his campaign. Not shocked enough to really start asking hard questions, though.
We then see Fisk experience a crisis of conscience, brought about by the sort of bitter irony that only a heavy-handed author could inflict, and the conclusion of the book rests on whether or not Fisk will “see the light." And after all that buildup leading to this dramatic moment...
Fisk waffles, then rules against the plaintiffs exactly as he was expected to do. The judgment is overturned, the victims go uncompensated, their lawyers go broke and lose everything, the bad guys win a crushing victory, and Trudeau sails off into the sunset on his mega-yacht.
Grisham is making a point, here. In fact, the entire book is driven by his agenda: a call against the dangers of judicial elections, corporate influence, and tort reform. As is usually the case with polemical novels, I found that it suffered despite the fact that I pretty much agreed with all of Grisham’s points. All the justices who vote against plaintiffs suing doctors and corporations are heartless ideologues, as made clear by narrative editorializing: “...as if he were capable of sympathy." Krane Chemicals is the sort of company you’re just certain would cheerfully sell nerve gas to Saddam Hussein, and Carl Trudeau is pure greed and ego.
Paraphrasing Tom Clancy’s not-very-original observation: the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be believable. I totally believe that corporations and people sometimes are that evil, but when I read about such cliched stereotypes in a novel, I cannot help but feel the author is being lazy.
Verdict: The Appeal is about as exciting as a state supreme court hearing on a class action lawsuit against a chemical company. Oh wait... Yeah, this book might make you pay a little more attention to the next judicial election, if that’s the sort of thing that gets your fires of righteous indignation burning, but this is not the sort of tense legal thriller that Grisham wrote earlier in his career, and all the characters are just names attached to designated roles.