You might think John Grisham would show signs of fatigue or a failure of imagination when writing his fiftieth novel. Not so. The reigning champion of the legal thriller is at the top of his form in The Boys from Biloxi, the story of one family’s decades-long struggle against the mobsters of the Dixie Mafia and their bars, casinos, and brothels on the southern Mississippi coast. The tale is vintage Grisham: tightly plotted, smoothly written, and crammed with intimate knowledge of politics, crime, and the courtroom in the New South.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Two boys, best of friends, destined for conflict later in life
The action in The Boys from Biloxi takes place in the half-century from 1948 to the late 1990s. The boys of the title, born shortly after World War II, are Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco. Both are third-generation grandsons of Croatian immigrants who fled poverty to Biloxi to work the boats harvesting seafood in the Gulf. Their surnames reflect the challenge their grandfather’s names (Malcovic and Rudic) represented for the customs officials who met them when they arrived in the US. Best of friends, the two boys grow up pitching baseball for rival Little League teams and, like so many boys, aspire to join the majors. Their parents live blocks apart and know each other well. But there is a distance between the two families. The Malcos are growing wealthy through questionable means. The Rudys work hard for the modest standard of living they enjoy.
The Boys from Biloxi by John Grisham (2022) 464 pages ★★★★★
Enter the Dixie Mafia
That conflict between Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco begins to emerge as they grow into adulthood. Keith takes the high road, studying the law at UMiss. Hugh settles into his father’s growing criminal enterprise and falls under the influence of the old man’s bodyguard, a sadistic brawler and killer. Meanwhile, life in Biloxi has changed, and not for the better. “In the late 1950s, a branch of a loose-knit gang of violent thugs nicknamed the Dixie Mafia settled in Biloxi with plans to establish their turf and take over a share of the vice” that had long thrived on the waterfront. They had “left behind an astonishing number of dead bodies, and virtually none of the murders were ever solved.”
For Hugh, the unchecked criminality represents an opportunity. Even Hurricane Camille, which levels the waterfront, gives his father a chance to build bigger and more profitable bars, casinos, and brothels. For Keith, the rampant crime is a scourge, and he grows steadily angrier and more frustrated over the police and DA’s failure to do anything about it. The notoriously corrupt sheriff—”the wealthiest sheriff in the state”—is an even greater roadblock to reform.
A crusading DA takes on the Dixie Mafia
Eventually, Keith takes the plunge to run against the corrupt DA and circumvent the sheriff. And when he wins, he becomes a threat to the criminal empire that Hugh hopes to run someday. Their rivalry, and the violence-strewn conflict that results, is at the heart of the story in The Boys from Biloxi. But Grisham follows Keith’s career for years afterward, observing him enter the statewide political arena and gain election as attorney general—because Hugh Malco still thrives, and the job is far from done. Grisham’s own experience as a former member of the state legislature serves him well as he portrays the uphill battle waged by political reformers in the state capitol.
This novel is one of John Grisham’s best. Highly recommended.
About the author
Here’s what John Grisham writes about himself on his author website: “John Grisham 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. Grisham is a two-time winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and was honored with the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction.
“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 more reading
I’ve reviewed sixteen other John Grisham novels, most recently Sparring Partners – Jake Brigance #4 (John Grisham shows lawyers behaving badly). You can access any of the other reviews by typing his name into the search field in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page.
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- Top 10 mystery and thriller series
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