‘The Reckoning’ by John Grisham: Ed’s review



I recently finished reading this latest novel by John Grisham. This is a very good book, although it is a little different from John Grisham’s previous offerings.

The standard John Grisham novel goes something like this: An attorney has happened upon a scandal of some sort, usually involving a big pot of money. (The money may or may not be held in a numbered account in the Cayman Islands.)

The attorney faces some moral quandary. Maybe someone approaches the attorney looking for assistance. Perhaps the attorney is threatened himself. The perpetrators of the scandal are invariably mafiosos or the corrupt managers of some Big Evil Corporation.

In the end, the attorney makes the right decision, solves the problem, and saves the day.

I’m not knocking the standard John Grisham Formula, mind you. (On the contrary, John Grisham is one of my favorite authors.)  But The Reckoning substantially deviates from that formula.

The Reckoning opens in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, in 1946. Forty-three year-old Pete Banning, a successful farmer, respected local citizen, and decorated World War II POW, is about to commit an inexplicable homicide.

Banning drives into town, where he shoots the pastor of his Methodist church, Dexter Bell.

Banning is arrested and charged with murder. Of course.  When questioned by the sheriff, he refuses to say why he did what he did.

Pete Banning’s young adult children plead with him, as does his older sister. But Banning simply won’t say why he murdered Dexter Bell.

It is also revealed that while Banning was away fighting the war (and presumed dead) Dexter Bell spent a lot of time with Pete’s wife, Liza. When the story opens, though, Liza has been sequestered away in a mental institution.

Suffice it to say (mild spoiler alert) that the outcome for Pete Banning is not a pleasant one. After Banning meets his fate, the story jumps back in time, to cover Pete’s exploits during the war, as a POW, and later a guerrilla fighter, in the embattled Philippines.

In the final section of the book, we finally learn why Pete Banning killed Dexter Bell.

No, I am not going to reveal the reason. I would, however, caution you against assuming the most obvious answer.

Although I liked this book quite a bit, many readers did not agree with me.  The book seemed to upset many readers who were expecting the Grisham Formula. Here’s a 1-star review from Amazon:

Crappy, pointless mess:

If I were a writer and knew that I would have to give up money if I didn’t have a “book” on my publisher’s desk by a date certain, and time was up, this is the kind of load of crap I would dish up. What passes for a plot is meaningless: the whole book is fleshed out with WW II history that needn’t be narrated as fiction, and arcane minutiae of criminal and civil procedure that couldn’t be more boring and, moreover, is woefully inaccurate. I actually felt that I’d been tricked into reading this steamer by being bamboozled by Grisham’s reputation, on which I can’t comment. BORING!!!!!!

The Reckoning is not “boring”. But you do need something beyond the attention span of an eight year-old to enjoy it. In many ways, The Reckoning is more like something that Stephen Hunter or W.E.B. Griffin would have written.

To be fair to the readers who didn’t like this book: John Grisham has now been publishing novels for about thirty years. To put a personal spin on this, when Grisham published his very first book, the initially overlooked A Time to Kill (1989), your humble correspondent was a bright-eyed twenty-one year-old.

I am now a not-so-bright-eyed, world-weary fifty year-old. My concerns and preferences are not what they were thirty years ago. I am a different person. So are you…if you were even alive in 1989.

Why then, should we expect that John Grisham is the same writer that he was when George H.W. Bush was president? The Reckoning is not The Firm, Grisham’s breakout success of 1991.

Why should it be, though? The Firm was a long time ago.

Longtime writers almost always evolve. Sometimes readers like the changes, sometimes they don’t. I used to read Stephen King’s early novels over the course of two or three days. But starting with It (1986), King adopted a meandering, bloated style that is a sharp departure from the taut, economical storytelling of the novels he wrote in the 1970s, and the first half of the 1980s. I now struggle to get through a Stephen King novel. I’ve been working on The Outsider for several months now, reading it in bits and pieces, while I’m reading other books.

(But that’s just me: Some readers prefer the new Stephen King.)

If The Reckoning is any indication, Grisham is moving away from the legal potboiler, in the direction of the literary thriller. This pleases me…But it clearly doesn’t please everyone.

To recap: The Reckoning is a very good novel, but you should not begin it with an expectation that you are about to get another helping of the Grisham Formula. Be prepared for something new, and different.

And if you’re not open to something new and different from John Grisham, then you might want to skip this one, and reread The Firm or  The Pelican Brief instead. They’re still very good books, too.

Is John Grisham slipping?

Late last week I received my hardcover copy of John Grisham’s The Reckoning from the folks at Amazon. (I had preordered the book.)

Before I jumped in, I was curious to see how the reader reviews had been running.

The early reviews are less than stellar. The average, based on Amazon’s 5-point scale, is running at 3.1 at the time of this writing. There are quite a few 1- and 2-star reviews.

What might account for this?

Well, first of all, what doesn’t: No one dislikes John Grisham for being John Grisham. He isn’t political. So the negative reviews weren’t made in retaliation for something Grisham said or did outside the printed page.

(Grisham, unlike Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, mostly stays out of the culture wars. He did test the waters with speaking out on a (very) inflammatory issue a few years ago, got burned, and promptly re-devoted himself to fiction.)

Nor does anyone, in 2018, purchase a John Grisham legal thriller with the expectation that they’ll be getting a fantasy novel or a romance. Everyone knows who he is and what he does. They either like Grisham’s schtick, or they don’t.

And for the most part, John Grisham does what he does brilliantly. But even he can have lackluster books.

For example, I was bored to tears by John Grisham’s 2010 novel, The Confession. To my reading, The Confession was a blatant piece of agitprop that Grisham wrote to oppose capitol punishment, and to attempt to SAY SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA.

The Whistler, too, I found to be a little slow, though it was free of socio-political virtue-signaling.

But when Grisham hits one out of the park, he really hits one out of the park. His last two efforts, Camino Island and The Rooster Bar, have been among his best books ever.

So to answer the question posed above, no–I don’t believe that John Grisham is “slipping”. But the guy has been cranking out novels, at a rate of about one per year, since before Bill Clinton was president.

Not all of them are going to suit your tastes–even if you’re a diehard Grisham fan. And where taste is concerned, your mileage may vary. I absolutely loved Camino Island, but plenty of reader-reviewers panned it. Likewise, not everyone disliked The Confession.

Which brings us to another issue: Grisham has legions of longtime fans, people who have been reading his books for decades. Many of them have very high expectations for every Grisham novel. And they have their own proprietary ideas concerning exactly what a John Grisham novel should be.