A glitch in Grisham's success machine

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 1997, 12:00am

When an author becomes so successful that he is billed by his publicists as 'the world's most popular author', it is tempting to try knocking him off his pedestal.

With John Grisham the attempt is unnecessary. The author has done the job himself.

Grisham's latest 'legal' thriller would have been better left on his hard disk as a story idea to be worked more thoroughly. It appears he has rushed The Partner into print hard on the heels of The Runaway Jury without giving the idea sufficient time to mature.

Perhaps Grisham has become too rich and successful as a popular thriller writer to care about quality any more and his editors have become too intimidated by his wealth and name to offer much in the way of good advice.

If so, it is a sorry state of affairs, for there is not a lot wrong with the plot of The Partner.

It is a clever story which could have done with more care to make it palatable. As it is, it disappoints. It is a shallow, cynical tale of outrageous greed and deceit.

In The Runaway Jury, Grisham's hero and heroine manipulated the venality of lawyers for seemingly altruistic motives and made a pile of money at the same time. But there are no pure motives in this book.

His hero, Patrick Lanigan, is as cunning and manipulative as the rogue juror Nicholas in The Runaway Jury. But a reader would be hard pushed to conjure up much admiration for Lanigan. You can admire his cunning but there is not much to like about him.

The story opens with the capture of a fugitive. Danilo Silva has been hiding in a small town in Brazil, leading an inconspicuous existence after faking his own death - as Patrick Lanigan - and disappearing from his Biloxi, Missouri, law firm with US$90 million.

But he has been too successful - he stole too much to be written off and his victims are still searching for him four years on. Danilo/Patrick must be found - and he knows it.

The story of how Lanigan engineered his own death and absconded with the firm's funds is told through a series of flashbacks.

Grisham attempts to give plausibility to his hero's motives. He was trapped in an unhappy marriage to an unfaithful wife; his partners in his law firm were about to sack him because they would soon come into a windfall of profits and did not want to share it with him; he was working too hard for too little reward.

We are encouraged to sympathise with him, Grisham even has him tortured for this purpose, but it does not work.

Grisham's Lanigan is beyond redemption. He is so self-centred, he is repugnant. His greed is no different from that of any of the other lawyers in the novel - possibly worse.

Grisham seems to want to make us believe that theft is all right, as long as the money stolen is 'dirty'.

And if caught red-handed, returning the money will make it all right as well - you have simply borrowed it to invest and make a profit (the same twisted ethics as in The Runaway Jury ).

It is sad to see a talented story teller descend to this sort of sophistry.

Some of Grisham's earlier novels deserved the acclaim heaped upon them. It appears the cynicism of success has got to him. There is clearly a place for him in Hong Kong.

The Partner by John Grisham Doubleday, $195