Which name doesn't belong with the others: Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, Scout Finch, Boo Radley or John Grisham? If you guessed John Grisham, you'd be wrong,
Six weeks ago, the former small-town Mississippi lawyer received the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction for last year's thriller, The Confession, in which a lawyer tries to save his client from being executed for a crime he didn't commit.
The award, sponsored by the University of Alabama School of Law (which Lee attended) and the American Bar Association Journal, will be given annually to a work of fiction “that best exemplifies the role of lawyers in society.”
It's unlikely that Grisham's latest book, The Litigators, will be a candidate for the 2012 prize. Although it fits his basic formula – an underdog takes on antagonists of gigantic proportions (in this case, the third-largest pharmaceutical company in the world and a Chicago law firm that ranks first “when counting assholes per square foot”) – this novel focuses on lawyers at the bottom of the food chain.
Ex-beat cop Oscar (“what I need is a good car wreck”) Finley and Wally Figg, a recovering alcoholic with four ex-wives, who puts his ads on bingo cards, are a pair of ambulance chasers whose bickering is right out of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. Even the office mutt growls when he hears sirens.
But into their lives staggers David Zinc, a 31-year-old burned-out Harvard Law grad who had a “snap” moment on the 93rd floor of his Chicago office tower (Grisham has left his usual southern turf down south). After joining the Occupy Barstool movement for a day, he's poured into a cab, sees an ad on the side of a bus for the “boutique firm” of Finley & Figg and, well, the rest is Grisham country.
The only other thing you need to know is that the cholesterol drug Krayoxx may cause heart attacks and strokes. (There's also a subplot about toxic toy teeth from China, if you're asking.)
Unlike, say, Grisham's intensely plotted The Rainmaker or the intriguing The Runaway Jury, The Litigators is painted with light colours. It's more like the subversive spinoff TV series Boston Legal than its morality-laden parent, The Practice. And there are times when you'll actually laugh out loud.
But Grisham's message is dead serious: Beware mass tort litigators. “We joined a stampede that was going nowhere,” David says, “and we didn't realize it until it was too late.”
So what's next for Grisham? Well, his first baseball novel is out next spring, the third in his kids' Theodore Boone series will appear in the summer, a TV series set 10 years after the events in The Firm will air next year, and a stage adaptation of A Time to Kill is in development.
Take that, Harper Lee.
Larry Orenstein is a member of Crime Writers of Canada and an editor in the Comment section of The Globe and Mail.