Playing the devil’s advocate

08 May 2016


Over the last two and a half decades, John Grisham has established himself not just as the world’s favourite legal fiction writer but as one of the most successful novelists of recent times. Since leaving his job as a lawyer to become a full-time writer, the American author has been churning out at least one novel per year. But even though millions of readers around the globe have been loyally consuming his work, none of them are likely to claim that his more recent efforts have been among his best. It is perhaps a good thing then that the author has tried something a bit different with his latest novel, Rogue Lawyer.

The book follows the story of Sebastian Rudd, a defence attorney who takes the challenging cases that no one else wants. His clients are often guilty, their crimes often heinous, but Rudd will defend anyone. After all, he tells us, “every defendant, regardless of how despicable the person or his crime, is entitled to a lawyer”, and someone has to represent even the most wicked criminals.

Law is his life, an “always consuming and occasionally fulfilling” occupation that leaves little room for family and friends, although he admits from the get-go that he simply does not possess the “patience and understanding necessary to maintain friendships”. His lone accomplice is Partner, a former client who now serves as his “driver, bodyguard, confidant, paralegal, caddie, and only friend”. He also has a (seemingly perfect) seven-year old son, Starcher, with his vindictive ex-wife, Judith, who is also a lawyer, and has a habit of dragging him into court in the hopes of stripping him of his visitation rights.

John Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer lacks a gripping central plot driving the narrative

Rudd isn’t a typical lawyer. Instead of maintaining a traditional office, he operates out of a customised black Ford cargo van. He carries a gun, and in the midst of nasty trials, moves from one cheap motel to the next every week, well aware that there are plenty of people out there who would like to see him dead.

As the narrator, the street lawyer tells us about some of his legal escapades, focusing, more or less, on one case at a time, with situations and repercussions getting more intertwined as things go along. His clients are a varied bunch — a teenage dropout with piercing and tattoos charged with killing two little girls; a drug trafficking crime lord on death row; a cage fighter who attacked the referee. But things start to get out of hand when he crosses paths with a suspected kidnapper who may or may not know where a missing girl is.

It is quite impressive that Grisham can still come up with so many interesting ideas; just exploring these ideas further could have made much of a difference.

With a series of cases presented in the six sections of the book, Rogue Lawyer comes off as a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel. While the approach is different from your standard Grisham legal thriller, it almost feels like the author is putting together scraps of unused ideas and packaging them in the shape of a novel. There isn’t a strong, gripping, suspenseful central plot driving the narrative. Some of the strings do come together towards the end, but not necessarily in a particularly surprising way.

Many of the secondary characters, like Rudd’s ex-wife and son, aren’t developed beyond their limited, stereotypical roles in the story. How things unfold — including some of Rudd’s shady legal manoeuvres and manipulations as well as how opportunities just present themselves to him — often seem unconvincing.

It is also hard to figure out who the reader is supposed to be rooting for. The book’s protagonist has the makings of an interesting character, but Grisham pushes him too firmly into the sleazy lawyer (and terrible father) corner for him to be a likable character. His guilty clients, too, generate no empathy. Even the justice system and law enforcement agencies are painted as corrupt and incompetent.

To his credit though, the writer really does know how to keep you turning the pages. The book is fast-paced and easy to read, and Grisham’s wry wit makes the proceedings more entertaining. The themes of some of the sections are quite compelling, and it feels like a waste that they weren’t developed further, with the author focusing on one main case.

With the choice to explore multiple arcs, Rogue Lawyer doesn’t read like a typical Grisham novel, but this approach doesn’t really pay off, particularly because the stories ultimately don’t come together in a cohesive, exciting way. It is quite impressive that Grisham can still come up with so many interesting ideas; just exploring these ideas further could have made much of a difference. If the plot wasn’t as scattershot, the threads were injected with some suspense, and the protagonist was a little more likable, this tale of a rogue lawyer who will defend anyone could have been a lot more exciting.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.

Rogue Lawyer
By John Grisham
Doubleday, US
ISBN 978-0385539432