Grisham, John. The Runaway Jury.

NY: Doubleday, 1996.

I’ve been reading Grisham off and on for some time, but I haven’t been systematic about it and I don’t sit and wait for his latest. I just read the jacket copy and pick up whatever looks like an entertaining read at the moment. This one, which kept me focused all the way through, is perhaps the best of his I’ve come across.

The setting is Biloxi, down here on the Gulf Coast, and the subject is the latest multi-million-dollar civil suit against the tobacco companies by the widow of an addicted cigarette-smoker who died of lung cancer. On one side, a group of big-time tort specialists has each put up a million dollars of his own money to finance the attack, under the leadership of Wendall Rohr, the most successful of them all. And on the other side, the four largest manufacturers of cigarettes have a huge, secret slush fund to finance the defense. And they have Rankin Fitch to manage the whole thing. Fitch will fight as dirty as necessary to win — he’s done it in the last eight suits and his clients have never lost a dime in a judgment — and he’s perfectly willing to break the law in whatever way seems most useful. There’s billions in profits at stake and the tobacco CEOs trust him to win for them yet again.

But Fitch has never come up against a jury like this one. Nicholas Easter has gotten himself selected (he’s been trying to accomplish that for years, moving around the country from one trial venue to the next, changing his name and registering to vote as soon as he gets there) and he’s going to take these people exactly where he wants them to go. He’s a very convincing manipulator, even though he’s on the side of the Angels. More or less. Though he’ll bend the rules to the breaking point, too, to get what he wants. And Nicholas isn’t alone, either.

Grisham does an excellent job of introducing the reader to the various members of the jury, who represent the whole spectrum of society (as they are intended to), and who all are being closely studied by a large gang of expensive “jury consultants” on both sides. We learn their vulnerabilities as Fitch does, and we watch as he figures out who can be pressured, or frightened, or bribed, or blackmailed. And we meet the trial team on each side in depth, and learn what drives them. (Money, mostly.) There’s plenty of rather sly humor, too. What’s more, even though the setting is nearly two decades ago now, it’s very easy to believe that Big Tobacco still does work this way, which makes the story even better. And you’ll learn a great deal about the physical consequences of smoking, if you didn’t know already. (It’s not difficult to pick sides in this story.)

You won’t be quite sure for most of the book about the true motivations of Nicholas and his co-conspirator, and even when you think you’ve figured it all out, Grisham throws in a few new twists that will make you stop and think. And that’s true even in the last ten pages. A very well-written and very entertaining read.

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Published in: on 30 January 2016 at 2:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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