Big Tobacco Vs. the Everyman

Author: John Grisham

In the case of Big Tobacco vs. the everyman (set in the 90s), it’s a given that the cigarette companies, with unlimited money and loose ethics, are going to win. But this landmark trial, set in a sleepy Mississippi town, just might challenge that assumption. Despite the tobacco companies’ careful research on all prospective jurors, one unknown has made it onto the case: Nicholas Easter. He’s a young man, and it’s hard to tell if he leans toward either side. There isn’t much on Easter, so it’s a surprise when he moves up in the ranks. He may not be the official foreman, but Easter is calling the shots, and it’s hard to tell what game he is playing.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Marlee claims to know what the jurors will do before they do it: down to what they will be reading or wearing in court on any given day. Marlee is working with both sides (supposedly), but Rankin Fitch, an expensive consultant for the tobacco company, thinks that he can payoff Marlee and buy votes. But it’s a Grisham novel, so nothing is that simple, and Marlee’s and Easter’s ulterior motives will surprise you.

I picked up The Runaway Jury after indulging in several Grisham novels. By now, I’ve gotten used to his writing MO – shady, not necessarily sympathetic characters, hidden agendas, backroom dealing and legal loopholes, and big-ticket cases handled by crooked lawyers. The good is very good; the storylines are exciting, relevant, and just twisty enough to keep readers on their toes. The bad is mild, mostly in that our characters, while fleshed out, are rarely likable. They make up for it by being interesting though – mostly.

With The Runaway Jury, however, I quickly found myself needing someone with whom to sympathize. Easter is busy playing a game, tampering with the jury from the inside, and his motives are unknown. Is he the good guy or the villain? Hard to tell. His reasons are covered with the usual shades of personal greed and vicious ambition, even after the final reveal. I wanted to know what happened next – kind of – but I wasn’t particularly driven to care.

Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay

My ambivalence towards the “protagonist” was compounded because The Runaway Jury has an unusually huge cast of characters, each of whom have secrets and shady motives. It becomes difficult to keep up with them and the schemes that, one at a time, take down each juror, targeting their private lives, their greed, their spouses, their weaknesses, etc. It’s certainly entertaining, when you can figure out who is who and keep up with the threads that are pulling them all in varied directions, but it also gets a bit trying, especially because once again, none of them are especially likable. I didn’t hate them all . . . but they are certainly flawed enough and self-focused enough to keep readers at an emotional distance.

Add to this the fact that Easter’s and Marlee’s machinations are a bit unbelievable, especially the back story on how Easter made sure he was in the right place at the right time, and you have a clever story idea with some tenuous logic. Could one maverick guy pull all this off on corporations with mega-millions? Doubtful.

The story is interesting, but ultimately more of a slow burn than usual. The information about cigarettes and lung cancer is the best portion of the tale, as is the deviousness of Rankin Fitch, who has some nasty tricks up his sleeve, but the heart palpitating excitement became a little lost in the sauce, as it were. Too many bad guys, one upping each other, took away from the emotional pull of what is, in essence, a good vs. evil story.

By the conclusion, I was ready for the reveal and tired of trying to keep everyone separated and find one person who was slightly altruistic. All in all, it’s still an entertaining story, and well told, but not Grisham’s personal best. Recommended, but try out some of Grisham’s other works first.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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