Cover image of "Sparring Partners," a novel about lawyers behaving badly

Don’t pick up John Grisham’s latest book expecting another novel in the ongoing saga of Jake Brigance, even though it’s described as the fourth in that series. Sparring Partners is a collection of three unrelated novellas that probe John Grisham’s favorite theme: lawyers and the legal system behaving badly. Only one of those stories is about Jake and the challenges he faces in Clanton, Mississippi. However, they’re all set in the South, which Grisham knows so well. And, like all his writing, they display his great skill as a storyteller.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

A lawyer has fled with his clients’ money

In “Homecoming,” set in 1991, 38-year-old Jake Brigance sets out to help an old friend who’s been missing from Clanton for three years. Mack Stafford had shocked everyone in town when he suddenly divorced his wife, declared bankruptcy, closed his struggling law practice, left behind two teenage daughters, and fled in the night. He’s now in Costa Rica and secretly living well enough to send Jake the cash for two airplane tickets to San José. There, Mack will whisk off him and his wife for a week in a luxurious eco-hotel above the Pacific Ocean.

The price is trivial. Mack wants Jake and his lawyer, Harry Rex Vonner, to find out whether it’s safe for him to return. (He’s contacted Jake because Harry is afraid of flying.) It seems that the rumor rife in Clanton is true: Mack had stolen some of his clients’ money and now feared an investigation. Believing the feared inquiry was closed, Mack slips back into the area. But, despite the great caution he exercises on his return, word gets around, as it has a way of doing in any small town . . . and the consequences will be ugly.

Sparring Partners (Jake Brigance #4) by John Grisham (2022) 304 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of The Square in Oxford, Mississippi, like the small town where one of the novellas in this collection is set. It's a story of lawyers behaving badly.
The Square in Oxford, a small Mississippi town like the fictional Clanton, where Jake Brigance lives and practices law. Image: Traveling Mom

A death row saga

“Strawberry Moon,” the second of the three novellas, is the sad story of a young man named Cody. At the age of 29, he has served 15 years on death row. When he was just 14, he and his 19-year-old brother had been living by robbing homes they thought were unoccupied. They were orphans and had fled an orphanage and foster care. Unfortunately, the two boys entered a luxurious home where the owner wielded a shotgun. The man shot Brian, but before dying he managed to kill both the man and his wife.

Local police arrested Cody on the spot and he was quickly convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die. He has never been free since, in spite of the heroic efforts of his attorney to stave off the inevitable. Over the years, Cody has become literate and philosophical. He had accumulated a library of nearly 2,000 novels, gifts from a retired schoolteacher in Nebraska.

Family dynamics show lawyers behaving badly

The “sparring partners” of the third novella’s title are the brothers Malloy, Kirk and Rusty. The two share the St. Louis law firm of Malloy & Malloy. (Their father is serving a ten-year sentence for manslaughter for the murder of his detestable wife.) The sons despise each other and barely manage to coexist. But their father has forced them into an iron-clad partnership agreement which will not permit them to quit without suffering the direst consequences. And now the old man is scheming to bribe his way out of prison. Once out, he will inevitably make their lives even more miserable. Which, unsurprisingly, leads them into a conspiracy to thwart his plans . . . and tap the millions of dollars he’s had squirreled away in secret accounts overseas.

About the author

Photo of 24 of John Grisham's books, like this collection of stories about lawyers behaving badly
Only about half of John Grisham’s books appear in this photo. Image: Amazon

According to John Grisham‘s bio on his author website, he “is the author of forty-seven consecutive #1 bestsellers, which have been translated into nearly fifty languages. His recent books include The Judge’s List, Sooley, and his third Jake Brigance novel, A Time for Mercy, which is being developed by HBO as a limited series. . . When he’s not writing, Grisham serves on the board of directors of the Innocence Project and of Centurion Ministries, two national organizations dedicated to exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted. Much of his fiction explores deep-seated problems in our criminal justice system. John lives on a farm in central Virginia.”

For related reading

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