Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge.
Every so often, because a lot of what I read can be classed as literary fiction and requires concentration, since it often draws on a wider literary context, I need to read what I think of as easy reading. Quite often, this takes the form of crime novels or thrillers, occasionally family sagas. Popular rather than literary fiction, the type of book you can pick up in a WHSmith shop at a train station or airport. I love this sort of fiction because it employs different skills. The author has to be able to hook the reader in quickly and maintain pace and human interest throughout the story.
The Pelican Brief is one of those books.
I hadn’t read any John Grisham before, but I’ve seen film adaptations of a couple of his novels. I have him filed alongside Michael Crichton, Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson in my brain – someone who does his research and uses his knowledge to create believable situations and characters in books that entertain rather than provoke contemplation.
The Pelican Brief is a legal thriller, set in 1991 at the end of a Republican President’s incumbency, a character presumably based on George Bush senior. The way he behaves, though, made me think Grisham might have predicted #45. Anyway, back to the book. The judiciary of the Supreme Court is on the receiving end of some hefty death threats and public demonstrations of no confidence. The FBI is called in to protect the nine judges whose lives might be in danger, but two of the judges won’t cooperate. Coincidentally, both are judges disliked by the Republican party. For the GOP and various government agencies, it would be highly convenient if both were out of the picture.
One of the judges, a 91 year old liberal who is in favour of protecting the environment, against punitive jail sentences, and sympathetic to the cause of Native American peoples, is greatly admired by a law professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. This law professor is a wonderful cliché of 90s academia. I was about to graduate from university at the time the book was written, and I recognised a couple of my lecturers who thought they were cool like this professor. Thomas Callahan likes a drink and likes to sleep with the prettiest female students.
One such student is Darby Shaw. She’s pretty, and she’s happy to sleep with Callahan, but she doesn’t want anyone to know, because as well as being pretty, she’s the sharpest student in the class.
A mysterious assassin arrives in North Carolina by boat and is transported to Washington DC, where he evades the notice of the FBI to bump off the two uncooperative judges. The news is delivered to the Republican President, who is delighted because he can now get two right wing judges onto the Supreme Court judiciary.
So far, so full of intrigue.
When the President announces the killings to the nation, Darby is quick to recognise that the judges’ deaths play into the hands of the new administration, and decides she’s going to practice what she’s learnt in law class to work out who arranged the killings. She’s effectively carrying out the same research as government law experts, and it becomes a race to be the first to crack the case. Darby uncovers a potential suspect that the FBI has missed. The suspect is a man known to the President, and Darby’s research sets dangerous wheels in motion.
The plot threads weave in and out of each other. There’s a Watergate-type thread, with White House and Department of Justice secrets being shared with a Washington Post journalist. There’s an FBI versus CIA thread, with the Director of the FBI at loggerheads with the President who calls in the CIA to run some background on what the FBI is up to. There’s a terrorism thread, a judicial corruption thread, a personal revenge thread. It’s a complex thing.
Grisham builds the story gradually, giving the bare minimum of information about motives and suspects. Those who are attacking the government aren’t clearly delineated when they act. There are particular groups and rich individuals who are of interest to the FBI in the investigation, but when they act, Grisham rarely reveals their allegiance. I enjoyed the suspense that this created. Some writers give too much away, so that you can pretty much solve the mystery about halfway through the book. I enjoyed Grisham’s technique of leaving the reader in the same position as the investigators in the book, slowly building up information, not fully aware of who is doing what or why.
As the threads weave together, and Darby’s life comes increasingly under danger, the tension builds. While it’s pretty standard stuff, I still found it exciting, particularly the cat and mouse chasing through the tourist-thronged streets and shady alleys of New Orleans, and the sense of jeopardy when the killer turns his sights on Darby and anyone she dares to trust.
The ending was a touch unrealistic, I thought, but that was the only thing I didn’t like about the story. Everything else was the pacey, entertaining thriller I wanted it to be.