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The Street Lawyer - John Grisham
Member Name: MALU
The Street Lawyer - John Grisham
Date: 12/06/12, updated on 13/06/12 (115 review reads)
Advantages: easy read, gripping
Disadvantages: none really
The second book was The Rainmaker and now The Street Lawyer. After reading two books I didn't expect to be surprised too much by the third, because it's clear for every observant reader that Grisham moves similar characters - young, male, white, Yale-educated - through similar ambiences - law firms and law courts - and lets them have similar experiences - idealist hero fighting big, bad firms, David v. Goliath style. What makes one read another of his books is the question how he varies the pattern.
Michael Brock is a 32-year-old antitrust lawyer climbing up the career ladder at high speed in a prestigious law firm in Washington, D.C. Working 80 hours a week is normal for him, his colleagues do it, too, as does his wife training to become a surgeon. It's not surprising that he'll soon become a partner in the firm and it's not surprising that his marriage is in a severe crisis. One day a homeless man enters the offices and takes Michael and eight other lawyers hostage. He makes them lay open how much they earned the year before and how much money they gave to charity. Not surprisingly, the result is meagre. Before he can declare what his ulterior motives are, he's shot by a sniper. Michael is standing next to him and covered by the man's brains and blood.
He gets some time off to recover and seeks out the area where the man used to stay. He finds his way to a Legal Clinic which works to protect the rights of the homeless. Mordecai Green, an advocate working there, skillfully ensnares him by touching his conscience. When Michael discovers that his firm was complicit in an illegal eviction which eventually resulted in the deaths of a young mother and her four children, he changes sides and becomes a full-time lawyer for the Legal Clinic for a fraction of his former salary. He steals a file with proof for the ill-doings which makes him a criminal and the target of his former firm's wrath. How will that end? Is there even the slightest chance of his winning a law-suit? With Grisham such questions make sense because when it comes to the ending, he doesn't follow a set pattern.
I'm no expert in legal proceedings. I trust Grisham that he does his homework diligently. After all he attended Law School and practised criminal law for about a decade. At the end of each book he thanks a long list of people who helped him research the special field in which the particular plot is set. The fascination of legal thrillers must be that they set things right (at least most of them do), just like fairy tales do (all of them do). They've existed for thousands of years. The real-life Judge Dee lived and solved crimes in 7th century China. A thousand years later his cases were written down. The Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik found a copy of the book in 1940, translated them and later wrote many sequels himself. Innumerable legal thrillers have followed.
With Grisham the legal section of a book can sometimes be too elaborate. If the readers isn't a law student themselves, it can be too much. In The Street Lawyer this is not the case in my opinion, at least I didn't become bored and, above all, I could follow. I remember that when I read The Partner, I skimmed a lot, there are too many details of subjects I know nothing about and don't want to know anything about.
In The Street Lawyer the legal side is counterbalanced by a strong moral issue. Grisham's moral beliefs come from his being a committed Christian, a Baptist. He's taught Sunday school to young couples and 4-year-olds and regularly goes with fellow church members on mission-service trips to Brazil. From the net, "The subthemes of his fiction reveal his understanding of the plight of the poor, his commitment to seek justice in our criminal system, his concerns for environment, and his descriptions of the challenge to reach across the racial lines that divide us."
Indeed, The Street Lawyer is a bit preachy. If you don't like this, then this novel can't be recommended. But obviously, many readers don't mind or even like being preached to. What does 'many people' mean in Grisham's case? As of 2008, his books had sold over 250 million copies worldwide. That was four years ago - I couldn't find a more recent number - and one must not forget that a book usually has more than one reader. We may perhaps add another 50 million. What kind of people are these? Grisham doesn't develop his characters much, only few are 'round'. Mordecai Green, the advocate for the homeless, is only good, the lawyer responsible for the eviction is only bad. There's only black or white, there are no shades of grey. Michael Brook needs only a month to leave his old life and throw himself into an insecure future. This radical change isn't prepared subtly and may not sound convincing to some. The characters seem to me like woodcarvings, a bit coarse but impressive.
What Grisham does well in The Street Lawyer is depict the lives of the homeless in Washington in a moving way. We don't see them as a mass but as individuals, each with their own story. The story takes place in February, it's not only the weather that's cold and is responsible for people dying in the streets, but also the political climate and the general attitude of the public. Does a book like The Street Lawyer have an impact, make people change their attitudes and maybe even fill the ranks of the samaritans helping the needy? It would be wonderful, but I doubt that many readers are affected so profoundly. My guess is that Grisham is so successful because he makes his readers feel good when they read about injustice and heroic characters fighting it. They're ersatz heroes fighting for the readers who can remain sitting in their armchairs watching them.
'Sex sells' is not true for Grisham's novels. If his Christian belief is responsible for his not including hot sex scenes is something I don't know, but I think it's a likely explanation. There is always a female character - in Michael Brock's case it's the administrator of a shelter for homeless women - but the encounters are so chaste that parents don't have to be afraid if their youngsters discover this author.
The thrill factor in The Street Lawyer isn't very high which is fine with me. Checking reviews on Amazon I've discovered that all of Grisham's books have rates from five stars to one star. From 'the best Grisham ever' to 'If Grisham was as good an attorney as he is a writer, there'd be a lot more people on death row.' I wouldn't want to live on Grisham alone, but every now and then his books are a welcome change.
*Pratchett is an exception regarding length.
Summary: a lawyer forfeits his career to help the homeless