Why The King of Torts Comes Up Short:

A Review of John Grisham's Latest Legal Thriller


Friday, Feb. 14, 2003

John Grisham, The King of Torts (Doubleday 2003)

John Grisham's latest effort, The King of Torts, contains some passages that show Grisham's strong suit - providing a highly entertaining and engrossing narrative. Unfortunately, however, from beginning to end, the book displays such a shocking degree of laziness, it really can't be termed anything other than a failure.

An Implausible Scenario Flaws the Plot From the Start

The King of Torts is the story of Clay Carter, a lawyer with the fictional Office of the Public Defender in Washington, DC (the real-life counterpart is the D.C. Public Defenders Service). One of Carter's clients is charged with committing a murder for no apparent reason. Then a shady character approaches Carter, explains why Carter's client committed the murder, and offers Carter a way to make huge cash as a result.

There are two problems with this scenario: first, the story involves a pharmaceutical company's misfeasance that makes Union Carbide's behavior in Bhopal look like it was inspired by Mother Teresa. I won't get into the details, but I will say that while I have no doubt that corporations engage in all kinds of shady behavior, this company's past actions, and the present solution it opts for, are simply beyond belief. Frankly, the conduct Grisham describes is not far from the company's getting a terrorist to knock off a few sitting Supreme Court justices, a scenario that Grisham lamely trotted out in one of his other, equally unsuccessful, books (see below).

Second, in order to take advantage of the shady character's offer, Carter has to ignore some of the legal profession's most fundamental ethical canons governing obligations to clients. Granted, lawyers do at times ignore ethics, and so this part is (slightly) less hard to believe. But would this lawyer - a fairly idealistic person who's chosen to work at OPD - really turn his back on his whole life so easily? I admit, there is a large amount of money at stake, but Carter is offered a significant pay hike to leave OPD earlier in the book and he turns it down without batting an eye.

Exactly what led these events to occur is never really explained, but Grisham leads the reader to believe that it will all be revealed in the end. It isn't. Most shockingly, Grisham appears to expect the reader to take the shady character at his word which, given the manner in which he works, is asking an incredible amount.

If Grisham isn't interested in a plausible plot, what's his real passion in the novel? What's the part he really wanted to write? The answer is easy: He wants to send up the plaintiffs' bar. Some of Grisham's caustic thoughts about the world of mass tort litigation have appeared in earlier books, but he hasn't really teed up the lawyers on the back cover of the Yellow Pages this thoroughly before.

Indeed, the whole first quarter of the book feels like nothing more than a lame set-up for this very send-up. There is one classic scene at a D.C.-area country club, in which Grisham describes a local contractor's financial situation (broke, but putting up a good front). But otherwise, this first quarter is merely functional, serving to move us along to the other material.

Essentially, once Carter has done the pharmaceutical company's real dirty work, the company rewards him by putting him on the trail of some of their competitors' bad drugs, so that he can make a fortune as a mass tort attorney suing the competitors for the harms the drugs have caused.

Grisham seems to enjoy himself a little too much when describing the shady world of the mass tort bar. In the novel, lawyers force clients to settle; arrange advertising to recruit more so they can put together a class action; and then, once they've done so, proceed to ignore the class's actual best interests, and concentrate solely on their own.

Too Mild A Comeuppance For Carter Makes the Novel Unsatisfying

Because we know Carter is behaving badly, we also know a fall must come - and we aren't disappointed. Carter (basically) gets his just desserts by the end of the book.

The problem is that he doesn't get nearly enough of a comeuppance. Grisham, who clearly hates certain aspects of the legal profession, nevertheless somehow lets Carter not only escape with the girl, but also retain some money and dignity.

Along the way, Carter has committed text-book federal securities fraud, violated a significant chunk of the ethical rules governing conflicts of interest, and seriously wronged a wide variety of his clients by leaving them with cancer but no legal rights to sue the companies that caused their disease. Keeping this background in mind, the idea that Carter would be able to jet out of the country without any real sanction (there is one brief mention of his having to relinquish a law license) seems like an awfully good deal. Perhaps more incredibly, Grisham appears to expect the reader to sympathize with Carter as he leaves the country on his chartered Gulfstream.

Most galling is the fact that Grisham never bothers to explain who it was that got Carter going in this direction in the first place. We never learn what - if anything - will happen to that shady character who first approached him, or the people who might have put the shady character up to it. Since the character's identity is a major mystery of the book, it's disappointing, to say the least, that the mystery is never solved.

If that's a surprise to you, then this book might be worth your while. But if you already knew that the mass tort lawyers who make millions of dollars suing large corporations do so mostly, if not entirely, for the money - and not because of some deep and abiding concern about the corporations' victims - then you won't find much in this book to interest you besides some cheap laughs.

Good Grisham Versus Bad Grisham

It's a shame, because Grisham is capable of so much more. When he makes an effort, he can produce some extremely entertaining reading. For example, in A Time to Kill, Grisham managed one of the better courtroom drama/ small-town political narratives in recent memory. Unfortunately, his highlights since then have been few and far between. Considering that A Time to Kill was Grisham's first book, that's a pretty sad statement.

Grisham's strong suit is in his somewhat cynical, highly sarcastic, and occasionally accurate commentaries about the legal profession. His positions tend to be radically overblown (the BMW's that were arranged for all new associates in The Firm, for example, are hardly typical of lawyers' entry perks). Yet they contain enough humor and truth to make for enjoyable reading.

Grisham's problems arise, however, when he starts concocting conspiracies and plots that are so far removed from reality that no reader could really take them seriously. The King of Torts is a case in point, but it's far from the only example.

Are there actually readers who believe that a CIA director would be capable of essentially creating a presidential candidate, and then rigging the election in that candidate's favor (The Brethren)? Or that a wealthy industrialist would get an international terrorist to arrange the same-day assassination of two sitting Supreme Court justices so that the President could appoint his ideological cohorts, who would then "correctly" decide a case of importance to the industrialist (The Pelican Brief)?

Grisham is a good storyteller, and when he focuses on discrete, believable stories about individuals and their interactions with the legal system he can achieve excellent results. Without a shred of basic plausibility, however, a novel like The King of Torts can never convince the reader to suspend disbelief, and enjoy the other virtues of Grisham's writing.

Sam Williamson is an attorney practicing in New York. He frequently reviews legal thrillers for this site.

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