The Guardians exposes small-town criminal justice.

John Grisham has been writing bestselling legal thrillers since A Time to Kill in 1989. He has sold hundreds of millions of copies of his books around the world in 42 languages and is regularly ranked as one of the most successful writers on the planet. Grisham is an activist and an outspoken critic of the failings in the criminal justice system, especially small-town criminal justice.

A suspenseful novel that’s not especially well written

Grisham rails against racism, economic inequality, and predatory corporations. His novels are invariably suspenseful, and nearly every one lays bare one of the fault lines in American society. But they are not especially well written. Grisham’s prose is flat and undistinguished, as though calculated to appeal to readers with a middle-school education. And his latest novel, The Guardians, is the weakest I’ve read.

The Guardians by John Grisham (2019) 371 pages ★★★☆☆

Small-town criminal justice viewed close up

Don’t get me wrong. In The Guardians, Grisham exposes the flaws in the criminal justice system, and he does so brilliantly. The novel follows the work of a crusading “innocence lawyer” named Cullen Post as he seeks to prove that clients on death row were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. (The well-known Innocence Project is one of a large number of law firms and legal clinics around the country dedicated to this work.) Grisham treats his hero so lovingly that it’s difficult not to get the impression that he himself might have taken the same route had he stayed with the practice of law.

An “innocence lawyer” in action, exposing the flaws of small-town criminal justice

In The Guardians, Grisham follows the itinerant Post as he travels the roads of the Deep South from one prison to another, visiting clients and prospective clients. In the course of the months that elapse in the story, Post focuses on two falsely convicted murderers. One was framed in the killing of a small-town lawyer in Florida. The other was railroaded onto death row for the rape and murder of a young Alabama woman he had never met. Post resolves both cases, but the Florida case is by far the more consequential, involving as it does a corrupt local sheriff, the FBI, and a Mexican drug cartel. Read this book, and you’ll look on small-town justice with a critical eye for a long time to come.

Grisham’s bad writing habit

I’ve been writing and editing copy for more than half a century, so I feel justified in passing judgment on what I read. And one of my pet peeves in reading fiction is being forced to read characters repeatedly stating the names of the people they’re speaking to. A conversation might go like this:

“Hello, A.”

“Hello, B.”

“A, what do you think about X?”

“Well, B, here’s what I think.”

“Thank you, A. That’s what I wanted to know.”

Believe it or not, in this book by one of the most successful writers in the world, there’s a lot of this. It’s a terrible sign of laziness, and I hope John Grisham wakes up before he writes his next novel. He’s certainly done a lot better in the past.

For further reading

John Grisham was interviewed about The Guardians on October 16, 2019 by Nashville Scene. The article appears at “John Grisham on True Crime, Junk Science and His New Novel.”

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