Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Last Juror

The Last Juror
© 2004 John Grisham
355 pages


As [Padgitt] was about to step out of the witness box and return to the defense table, he suddenly turned to the jury and said something that stunned the courtroom. His face wrinkled into pure hatred, and he jabbed his right index finger into the air. "You convict me," he said, "and I'll get every damned one of you."
"Baliff!" Judge Loopus said as he grabbed for his gravel. "That's enough, Mr. Padgitt."
"Every damned one of you!" Danny repeated, louder. 

If you forced me to choose a favorite John Grisham work, I could manage to choose The Last Juror with some conviction. Not whole conviction, mind you, for I'm prone to picking up  my well-thumbed copy of The Rainmaker and reading a chapter at random. The two works, probably not coincidently both written in the first person, constantly jockey in my mind for first place. Like many of Grisham's works, The Last Juror's background plot takes place within the realm of law, as a small Mississippi town is shaken by the rape and murder of a young woman in full view of her children. The prime suspect is Danny Padgitt, a young member of the Padgitt crime family, a secretive and close-knit clan of bootleggers, car thieves, and drug dealers who operate from a small island formed by a near-circular bend in the Mississippi river. Unlike Grisham's other works, the main character is only a spectator to the trial. His name is Willie Traynor, and he's a 23-year old lapsed university student who has acquired the bankrupt local paper through a rich aunt. Traynor is interested in turning the weekly newspaper into a goldmine, and the shocking trial provides an instant boon in his first few months as owner and publisher.

The Last Juror is  notable for its setting and scope: while other Grisham works take place within the span of a few months, The Last Juror spans an entire decade -- and that decade happens to be the 1970s, the era of Vietnam, Nixon, and Civil Rights.  While the dramatic murder trial's lasting effect on the town provides the overall plot, the substance in between its appearances makes the book special for me, for Grisham  explores the development of a small town in this tumultous period from the perspective of an outsider (Traynor is from Memphis, which makes him a 'northerner' in his readers' eyes). Grisham uses the timeframe to comment on the culture and history of the rural south from the viewpoint of a local newspaper: religion, politics, funerals, football culture, the response to segregation,the  rise of big box stores, and the like all receive Traynor's curious attention and amused, concerned, or affectionate commentary. The book is in a way a loving tribute (and a mild roasting) to Grisham's childhood background. This is the book that made me curious about the effects of chain stores on local economies, for instance. A ten-year span also provides plenty of time for character development, as Traynor ages and becomes part of the town's fabric of interesting characters. The town is, by the way, Clanton -- a favorite setting of Grisham's, set in his often-visited and fictional Ford County. Characters from other books (Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks from A Time to Kill, most notably) appear, sometimes extensively and sometimes only as part of the background.

The Last Juror for me is the most interesting of Grisham's works for its novelty: none of his other works are like this. As much as I like The Rainmaker, it is at its essence only a legal thriller like much of his other works. The Last Juror is commentary on ten years of the history and culture of a small southern town, breaking from Grisham's typical formula and an easy reccommendation to those who are familar with Grisham's legal thrillers but who have tired of them, or who have never really experienced his works.

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