Associated Press Writer
Grisham "Keeps The Pages Turning" In New Novel
By Ron Berthel
Associated Press Writer
The main character in John Gris-ham’s new novel "The Last Juror" (Doubleday, 355 pages, $27.95) isn’t a juror, or even a lawyer or a judge.
He’s Willie Traynor, 23, a former journalism student and college dropout who somewhat halfheart-
edly becomes owner, editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper in small-town Clanton, Miss., in 1970.
Although the novel features a murder trial, "legal thriller" is only one of its personalities. It is also a homey tale about a small-town newspaper and its young master growing up together, and a social obs-ervation of the effects that rapidly changing times — school desegregation, the Vietnam War, illegal drug use and the demise of small businesses at the hands of national "big box’’ retailers – have on life in a slow-paced Southern town.
When Willie, Southern-born, North-ern-educated and the story’s narrator, takes over the bankrupt Ford County Times, the paper is known for its thorough obituaries and little else.
Soon, the Times and all of Clanton are energized by the rape and murder of a young widow in the presence of her two children, and by the trial of the suspect, Danny Padgitt. The Padgitts are a dangerous, wealthy, influential and reclusive family of lowlifes that have occupied a self-made "island’’ on the edge of town for generations and, until now, enjoyed immunity from the law.
Despite Danny’s outburst to the jury — "You convict me, and I’ll get every damned one of you!" – he is found guilty. But since the jury is hopelessly deadlocked when deliberating about his sentence, law decrees that Padgitt get a life sentence instead of death in the gas chamber that almost every Clantonite thinks he deserves.
Only 50 pages from the end,
a mystery develops when the Padgitts buy Danny’s parole and the jurors begin getting murdered, one by
one. Is Danny delivering on his
courtroom vow of revenge?
Throughout the story, a friendship dev-elops between Willie and Miss Callie, the last juror chosen for the Padgitt trial and the first-ever black juror in Ford County. They meet at Miss Callie’s weekly for a home-cooked lunch, where they discuss current events and the number of typos in that week’s Times. (Miss Callie reads every word, including the classifieds and legal notices.)
Willie is involved also in a plot about Miss Callie’s eighth and young-est child, Sam, who has been on the lam since being caught with the wife of a white state trooper.
As in the past, Grisham takes some shots at the legal profession and its practitioners. He also has some un-kind observations about corruption and inefficiency at various levels of government in Mississippi, where he attended law school and practiced law.
Although suspense and thrills aren’t the main focus of this novel, Grisham knows how to keep the pages turning.