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Innocent Until Proven Readable
The Innocent Man - John Grisham
Member Name: IainWear
The Innocent Man - John Grisham
Advantages: The pages keep turning
Disadvantages: One sided and lacking in emotional impact
John Grisham is one of those authors who, although I enjoy their work, I don't tend to spend money on it. Much like James Patterson, he work is enjoyable and readable enough, but it doesn't have a great deal of impact that would make it worth having the book around to re-read. He's the sort of author I can understand selling well at airports and train stations, as it's the perfect way to while away a long journey with little else to do but stare out of a window.
''The Innocent Man'' is touted as Grisham's first work of non-fiction, as opposed to his usual legal thriller, which could make it a little different, although it does share some common aspects with his normal work. The innocent man of the title is Ron Williamson, a former college baseball star from small town Oklahoma who didn't quite make it in the world of professional baseball thanks to injuries and a fondness for things that didn't keep him in the best physical shape.
Giving up on his dreams of becoming a sports star, he returned home as a drifter, never settling and never quite able to let go of his glory days and the unfulfilled potential he had. A few years after his return, a young waitress is brutally murdered and, a few years later, another young girl goes missing. The local police were unable to solve either case, but getting desperate for a conviction, they relied on questionable forensic evidence and paid for testimonies and so Ron Williamson ended up on Death Row.
The scope of the novel is unusual for Grisham as much of it is biographical, covering Williamson's early life and full details of the crime, rather than just the court room legal wrangling. This means we get a glimpse into Williamson's early life, from his early days as a slightly spoiled and demanding child, through his attempts to become a professional baseball player, to his life afterwards and his time on Death Row. In many Grisham novels, the focus is on the one character only for the scope of the story and this put a little more meat onto the bones of the story than I'm used to getting from Grisham.
On the down side, on occasion it does show that this approach isn't a common one for Grisham. Williamson suffered from mental illness throughout much of his life and it appears he was tormented by the prison guards in local prison and on Death Row and also struggled to live a normal life once his baseball career was over. Unfortunately, most of this was reported dispassionately and gave no real insight into how Williamson was progressing emotionally. The way it was reported gave evidence he was suffering and in decline, but I never really felt all that much empathy with him, as the writing wasn't emotional enough to draw me in that way.
Whilst the almost journalistic tone of the novel failed on that level, it worked very well when we came to Grisham's real strength, that of the legal process. It is during these sections that the book goes into the kind of detail you expect from a John Grisham novel, as both his interests and experience seem to lead him into every aspect of the legal process, from evidence collection to witness coaching and fact twisting. The story of Williamson's life may have been skipped over fairly quickly, but the story of the court cases that changed his life were presented in minute detail.
However, the maintaining of a single writing style made the book as a whole quite readable. Regardless of whether Grisham was looking at Williamson's life on the baseball field or examining the paltry evidence the prosecution had, he writes in a simple language that encourages the reader to keep ploughing on and keeps the pages turning quite rapidly. I found that even without ever becoming involved in the story on an emotional level, the style of writing enabled me to keep reading and, even though this is longer than a normal Grisham novel, I reached the end fairly quickly.
This is a book that needs to be read with a pinch of salt. History tends to be written by the winners and that is certainly the case here. Although some of his past misdemeanours are touched upon, Williamson is presented as someone who has done very little wrong through his life and the prosecution and local police come across as a group as being at worst corrupt and at best incompetent. To be fair, this matches Grisham's usual style, where he only follows one side of the story, but in a work of non-fiction, I feel we're entitled to a more balanced view. The truth may well be that Williamson was wrongly convicted, but to paint an entire police and District Attorney's department in the light they were to hammer this point home left me feeling slightly uncomfortable.
If you're normally a fan of courtroom based dramas and John Grisham's work in particular, this is well worth reading for something slightly different from the norm. However, for those used to better writing than Grisham can produce, you may find that a story as high on some detail, but lacking in emotion and balance as this one leaves a little to be desired. However, if you're off on a long journey and need something to occupy your time, there is certainly worse to be had, especially as this can be found for as little as a penny for a used copy from eBay or the Amazon Marketplace.
Summary: Grisham's first foray into non-fiction is a partial success
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