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If you're a long time reader of John Grisham novels, then you pretty much know what to expect from his books: a stripped down legal thriller, usually with some sort of David and Goliath fight at its core; enough legal details to make it sound plausible, without entangling it in legal technicalities; simple, straightforward characters (often an essentially good, but flawed central character taking on an eeeevil opponent) and a relentlessly fast pace, packed so full of frequent plot developments that you scarcely have time to draw breath.
It's a formula which has worked for almost 20 years now, so it's unlikely he's going to be in any rush to change. With that in mind, you can almost decide upfront whether or not you will like The Confession. If you've read and enjoyed Grisham's previous books then for the most part, you will enjoy The Confession; if you find his books shallow, then his latest will not win you over.
In some ways, The Confession is even less original than some of his previous novels, containing plots elements which he has used before. The central storyline sees a character arrested and persecuted by a blind judicial system for a crime he did not commit and it borrows heavily from Grisham's non-fiction work An Innocent Man. The book's other major theme - the death penalty - seems him revisit the question of legalised killings for the first time since The Chamber.
Combining these two elements together makes for a gripping read. Grisham's forte has always been his pacing - he knows just how long to spend on an element of the plot before switching to a slightly new one. He manages the perfect balance between suspense and moving the plot on. Grisham gives his readers exactly what they wan and expect: a breathless race against time to save an innocent man from execution. It rattles along at a cracking pace with scarcely any consideration of the bigger issues which lie behind it, not requiring the reader to think. True, there are occasional attacks on the judicial system and the death penalty in general (Grisham leaves us in no doubt which side of the debate he stands on), but these form only a small part of the book and you never feel that Grisham is lecturing or getting on his soap box.
Grisham also attempts to introduce a sub-plot taking in racial tension (the innocent man is black, everyone connected with the prosecution, white). This is not wholly successful, and it's here that there is a little more evidence of tub-thumping. Race relations is an incredibly complex area and the superficial treatment it receives here arguably does far more harm to the cause than good. The book has a rather lazy tendency to paint black people as being naturally good, reliable god-fearing people and whites as being evil, devious and manipulative. These stereotypes do nothing to further the cause of racial harmony.
Both plot and characters are very superficial and drawn with very large brushstrokes (you know almost as little about the characters at the end of the book as you did at the beginning). Some may find this frustrating, but in the context of the main storyline it works very well. The fast-pace of the plot reinforces the feeling that the characters are involved in a race against time with less than 24 hours to save an innocent man from execution.
The plot sucks you in, whilst also generating genuine tension and some surprising emotional highs and lows. As each new appeal for clemency is filed you hope against hope that the authorities will finally see sense and stop the execution. As each new appeal is denied, you become more and more desperate as time is running out. This gives the book a very powerful narrative drive as you get completely caught up in the "will-they, won't they" aspect of the plot, hoping against hope that an innocent man will be saved. It's testament to Grisham's writing skills that despite paper-thin characters and a slightly hackneyed plot, he still manages to extract a high level of tension and emotion.
The chief problem is that it simply goes on too long. The main plot (the execution) runs for about 250 pages and is absolutely gripping. The trouble is, the book is about 450 pages long and once the issue of the execution is resolved, all the tension leeches out of the book. What Grisham should have done was conclude his main plot and then finish the book as soon as possible, giving a quick summary of the fates of each of the main characters and how their experiences have changed them. This would have provided a very satisfying, fitting ending.
Instead, he carries on for almost another 200 pages, looking at the aftermath in far more detail than is actually necessary. In contrast with the rip-roaring, helter-skelter action of the first part, the second act feels ponderous and slightly dull. It also lacks any sense of tension or urgency, ambling along at a pedestrian pace, taking a long time to go not very far. The overall effect is almost like you are reading two slightly different (but linked) stories, which have been artificially joined together to form a single book.
We do eventually get a summary of the fates of the main characters but it comes far too late. By the time Grisham starts to wrap everything up, any sense of tension has long gone; the gripping atmosphere which pervaded the first part has dissipated and the reader has almost lost interest in their fate. If ever there was a book of two halves then this is it. Part one is a gripping, fast-paced legal tale, a true Grisham pot-boiler; part two is a rather dull, superficial consideration of race relations and the legal system.
The four stars awarded to this book are very much on the basis of the first 250 pages. I did consider docking it a further star for the rather stuffy, slow-paced second part but decided against it. On the whole, I did enjoy the book and whilst the second section certainly dragged, the first part more than made up for this.
If you're a fan of Grisham, then this should satisfy you; if you're not, then there's nothing here that will change your mind. If you've never read a John Grisham before, then there are probably better books to start with (the aforementioned The Chamber for one), but if you do pick this one up and start reading then there's still plenty to like.
© Copyright SWSt 2011