Book of the DayThis review first appeared in the Irish Times
By John Grisham
Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature on why large publishing firms find it impossible to escape the ‘blockbuster trap’. This is a lottery-style business model, albeit on a vast scale: you invest huge amounts of money in very few titles, and hope that some of them hit the jackpot and provide a return that will sustain the company’s entire roster. It’s a boom-or-bust philosophy that appears cavalier, but the alternative for any company not willing to play the game is that the author’s agent will simply take his client to a company who will.
As a result, there’s a lot riding on John Grisham’s latest novel, THE ASSOCIATE, for Random House imprint Century. Grisham is a brand name and a perennial best-seller. THE ASSOCIATE, his twenty-first thriller, is perceived as something of a weather vane; if Grisham doesn’t sell, then the publishing industry is in dire straits.
Perhaps that accounts for the novel’s conservatism. The cover proclaims Grisham as the ‘bestselling author of THE FIRM’, and the inside jacket acknowledges that THE ASSOCIATE is ‘reminiscent’ of Grisham’s breakthrough title, which took bestseller lists and Hollywood by storm. In point of fact, THE ASSOCIATE is so ‘reminiscent’ of THE FIRM that the unwary reader may suffer déjà vu.
The protagonist, Kyle McAvoy, is a an idealistic law student, the editor of the Yale Law Journal, and a young man with a very bright future. His prospects quickly grow bleak, however, when he is blackmailed by a shadowy organisation, fronted by one Bennie Wright, into infiltrating one of Wall Street’s largest law firms and charged with winkling out the secrets of a multi-billion lawsuit. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse tale in which Kyle attempts to discover who is directing Bennie Wright before he gets caught in the act of corporate espionage and blackballed for life.
It’s a conventional set-up by the standards of the contemporary thriller, and Grisham’s bland prose lacks the style that might compensate, while the dialogue is at times laughably preposterous (“You awake?” Joey whispered. “Yes. I assume you are too.”) There’s precious little narrative tension, either – Kyle’s predicament, and the reason he is being blackmailed, is that Bennie possesses a video-recording that suggests Kyle may or may not have been present, years previously, when two of his college roommates may or may not have had non-consensual sex with a woman who subsequently claimed she was raped.
Grisham attempts to gloss over the fact that any half-baked law student would call the blackmailer’s bluff with the words ‘reasonable doubt’, but any reader familiar with even the most basic of legal procedures will realise that Kyle – particularly if he is as bright as Grisham claims – can walk away from the mess at any point. In order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, however, Kyle becomes the kind of genre-friendly but utterly implausible character who is noble enough to put a multi-million dollar career on the line for the sake of his former friends’ reputations.
There are, for those new to Grisham’s oeuvre, some fascinating insights into the workings of large legal firms, which the ex-lawyer describes in intimate detail: the crushing workload, the rapacious billing practices, the sheer lunacy of the mentality that pervades the upper echelons of sprawling corporations that have, as Mark Twain once said, neither a head to think with nor an ass to kick. But even those kind of details will be already familiar to Grisham fans, and the frequent digressions contribute to a frustratingly disjointed narrative.
THE ASSOCIATE may seem the perfect panacea for an industry currently questioning its modus operandi: its very familiarity may provide comfort in a time of doubt. In the long run, however, the championing of such staid, conservative novels can only accelerate the industry’s downward spiral of boom-or-bust. – Declan Burke
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE ASSOCIATE by John Grisham
Fair play to the Irish Times – at a time when newsprint all over the planet is slashing its books coverage, the Old Lady has introduced a ‘Book of the Day’ review on its op-ed pages. Yours truly had the honour on Tuesday, to wit: