Since his first book was published in 1989, John Grisham has been one of America’s most popular novelists. Grisham has a unique talent for writing compelling legal stories people enjoy reading. Many of his novels portray likable but flawed characters facing challenges that involve contemporary social issues such as racism, environmental destruction, homelessness, revenge violence, the death penalty, health insurance, the rights of children, the power of tobacco companies, organized crime, and government corruption. Many of his lawyers are young, hardworking, and unsure whether the law really does much to help ordinary people.
Born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1955, John Grisham grew up in Arkansas and northern Mississippi. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 1977 and the University of Mississippi Law School four years later. He married Renée Jones and began practice in Southaven. From 1983 to 1990 he was a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives. Intrigued by cases he saw and heard about, he started writing fiction about legal issues.
Grisham’s novels set in and near Mississippi show an intriguing dichotomy between an older small-town South in the fictional Ford County and a showy, wealthy, sometimes scary New South. Grisham’s books about the edges of Mississippi—Memphis, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast—present a Sun Belt South marked by new wealth, powerful and often corrupt corporations, organized crime, a potent federal government, and the facelessness of modern society. Part of the uniqueness of Grisham’s rise to popularity was the juxtaposition of the southern setting of Memphis and organized crime in his extraordinarily popular The Firm (1991).
In the interior of Mississippi, the fictional Ford County, Grisham deals with traditionally southern settings and issues—racial segregation and white supremacy, face-to-face community life held together through families, and long traditions. Grisham’s first book, A Time to Kill (1989), addresses traditional southern themes of race, rape, revenge violence, and community standards, but he twists those themes by portraying an African American man who avenges the rape of his child by killing a white man and then relies on community traditions about protecting one’s family to overturn community traditions of white supremacy. After three books set in Memphis and New Orleans, Grisham returned to Ford County with The Chamber (1994), a book about confronting Mississippi’s worst traditions in which young lawyer Adam Hall attempts to keep his grandfather, Sam Cayhill, from execution for the murders of civil rights workers in the 1960s. An exile’s Ford County homecoming is also the theme of The Summons (2002), in which a lawyer son returns after the death of his father, a judge. Finding a fortune in hidden cash, the son ponders how to legally and ethically deal with both the money and his father’s legacy. Grisham returned to the Ford County setting in The Last Juror (2004), the story of a free-spirited young editor who comes to know an older African American woman serving as a juror in the 1970s trial of an accused rapist and murderer.
Grisham’s novels frequently deal with uncertainties about the law and the temptations of wealth. Many of Grisham’s lawyers are young and somewhat rebellious figures who know the law and use it for the benefit of their clients but do so outside the courtroom and sometimes outside conventional structures of the legal system; some tire of the system and leave it. In novels such as The Partner (1997), The King of Torts (2003), and The Appeal (2008) and the nonfiction work The Innocent Man (2006), Grisham takes a dark view of the law as a haven for self-interest. Some of his more recent books address an issue surely important in Grisham’s own life—what to do with extraordinary wealth. In The Testament (1999), The Summons (2002), and especially The King of Torts, large and unexpected amounts of money raise complicated moral and legal issues.
Since moving from Mississippi to Virginia in the late 1990s, Grisham has expanded his the range of settings and topics of his work. A Painted House (2001), a slowly paced semiautobiographical novel set in 1950s rural Arkansas, discusses childhood, baseball, cotton, Mexican labor, and relative poverty but no legal issues. The first Grisham novel in which the setting is largely irrelevant to the story, Skipping Christmas (2001), involves a couple who decide to avoid the typical expectations of Christmas. Other recent novels deal with high school football and Central Intelligence Agency intrigue. The Innocent Man, Grisham’s first nonfiction work, details the life an Oklahoma man whose conviction for murder was overturned after years of effort and some new evidence. Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer (2010) introduced a different approach to legal fiction. Two of his recent works, the short story collection Ford County (2009) and the novel Sycamore Row (2013) return to the Mississippi county Grisham created in A Time to Kill.
Grisham’s books have become so popular that his book signings are events with virtually unprecedented popularity, and many of his works have been made into movies.
- John Grisham website, www.jgrisham.com
- John Grisham, interview by Tom Mathews, Newsweek (15 March 1993)
- Beth Pringle, John Grisham: A Critical Companion