Lawyer John Grisham's success as a writer is rooted in paradox: He's a "legal elite" propelled by populist anger against legal elites. And The Confession sticks profitably, one can safely predict, to the formula.
It might, though, have been called simply Confession. There are sundry gut spillages, some of them coerced, all of them tortured, to and among preachers, police, private investigators, lawyers and judges.
But this is no meditation on its title subject, or on justice in the age of Guantanamo Bay.
Rather, it is patented Grisham potboiler, in plotting, pace and tone as well as in its focus on "legal lynching": death penalties pronounced on America's wrongly convicted. (Grisham is a celebrity board member of U.S. "innocence projects.")
Given its central plot - on sketchy evidence, an all-white Texas jury convicts a young black man, Donté Drumm, of raping and murdering a white cheerleader - Grisham might have called it To Kill a Mockingbird 2010. A truly accurate title, though, would be Texas Justice.
The early going, the establishing narrative, is shaky. In several single paragraphs of the first chapter, perspective shifts turbulently, and not for aesthetic effect. There are grammatical errors.
But once we meet two of the four principal players - a Lutheran minister called Keith Schroeder and Travis Boyette, a career sex offender who tells Schroeder that he raped and killed the cheerleader nine years earlier - Grisham hits his groove. The momentum quickly builds into sugar-high compulsion.
As usual, there is one character with real flesh - here poor, innocent Drumm after nearly a decade on death row. Much of the time, the reader has the impression he's wolfing down a reporter's account of actual events - absorbing, well-researched journalism, with the occasional (journalistic) lapse into cliché or stereotype, particularly noticeable in other central characters such as politicized lawyers and judges and bent government hacks.
But this is Grisham's strength in his niche. A narrative about a black man hours away from lethal injection in the U.S. death-penalty capital for a crime he didn't commit, a novel about an African-American high-school football star judicially lynched for ravaging a beautiful white girl whose body is still missing, might be prosaically compelling, no matter the writer.
But consider Grisham's The Rainmaker, similar in design and tone. While never approaching "literature," it is one of the most entertaining legal thrillers you'll read in English. And it's about … insurance litigation. Making such a topic heroic and gripping - sympathetic, even - takes narrative craftsmanship, literary or not.
Here, Grisham fully exploits his talent for believable "thriller" narrative that evokes reflexive sympathies - as he has done since The Firm, the novel that allowed him to leave law practice by establishing his lucrative formula of the lawyer as Robin Hood, populist champion of justice against Big Law's injustice system.
Readers do not buy John Grisham novels for poetry or character development. Without necessarily craving blurb celebrity, the reasonable reviewer could call The Confession classic, compulsive Grisham.
Jeffrey Miller is a writer and teaches law and literature at the University of Western Ontario. His latest book is Murder on the Rebound, a comic novel set in Toronto's legal community.