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THREE years ago the name John Grisham meant little to anyone outside Mississipi, where he ran an unexceptional legal practice. Since then he has sold something like 41 million books. His fifth legal thriller, The Chamber, at no 3 in our chart, had an initial print run - in hardback - of 2.5 million. Its predecessor, The Client, has sold 3 million in hardback, double that in paperback, and, in the wake of The Firm and The Pelican Brief, is released as a film later this year. Hollywood studios buy the rights to his books before he has finished writing them. Grisham is the best-selling author in the world.

But why? What's he got that no one else has? It's not as if he writes especially well, the critics scathe, his characters are sketchily drawn, courtroom scenes are hardly original, and so on. In interviews, Grisham is disarmingly frank about his perceived literary shortcomings - he makes no claim to art, he says, and regards his writing more as a business (and it's certainly that - an entire industry) than as a craft. The critics miss the point, which is that his stories are ferociously plot-driven: they will keep you awake all night.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY BESTSELLER LIST ----------------------------------------------------------------- HARDBACKS ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 Delia Smith's Summer Collection BBC Books pounds 14.99 (1/33) 2 Magic Eye 2 by N E Thing Enterprises Michael Joseph pounds 10.99 (2/6) 3 The Chamber by John Grisham Century pounds 15.99 (11/2) 4 Magic Eye by N E Thing Enterprises Michael Joseph pounds 10.99 (3/11) 5 The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth Bantam Press pounds 15.99 (4/6) 6 Soul Music by Terry Pratchett Gollancz pounds 14.99 (5/3) 7 Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab Bantam Press pounds 14.99 (6/34) 8 Monty: The Lonely Leader by A Horne & D Montgomery Macmillan pounds 16.99 (-/1) 9 Travels A La Carte by Sophie Grigson and William Black Network Books pounds 15.99 (9/3) 10 Brother Cadfael's Penance by Ellis Peters, Headline pounds 14.99 (7/4) 11 Michelin Red Guide: France 1994 Michelin pounds 12.95 (8/11) 12 The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst, Chatto pounds 15.99 (-/1) 13 Accident by Danielle Steel Bantam Press pounds 14.99 (-/1) 14 Summers Will Never be the Same ed Christopher Martin-Jenkins Partridge Press pounds 12.99 (-/1) 15 The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry Hutchinson pounds 14.99 (10/11)

----------------------------------------------------------------- PAPERBACKS ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 The Client by John Grisham Arrow pounds 5.99 (3/2) 2 Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle Minerva pounds 5.99 1 (4/2) 3 The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous by Jilly Cooper Corgi pounds 5.99 (1/6) 4 The Night Manager by John le Carre Coronet pounds 5.99 (2/5) 5 Angel by Barbara Taylor Bradford HarperCollins pounds 4.99 (5/2) 6 Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre pounds 5.99 (7/17) 7 Asta's Book by Barbara Vine Penguin pounds 4.99 (13/2) 8 Thunder Point by Jack Higgins Signet pounds 4.99 (6/5) 9 Honour Among Thieves by Jeffrey Archer, HarperCollins pounds 5.99 (8/10) 10 A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth Phoenix pounds 8.99 (9/14) 11 Some Other Rainbow by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell Corgi pounds 5.99 (10/10) 12 Wild Swans by Jung Chang Flamingo pounds 7.99 (12/37) 13 Diaries by Alan Clark Phoenix pounds 6.99 (-/1) 14 A Rival Creation by Marika Cobbold Black Swan pounds 5.99 (-/1) 15 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 4th Estate pounds 5.99 (-/1)

----------------------------------------------------------------- SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett Corgi pounds 3.99 2 Grailblazers by Tom Holt, Legend pounds 4.99 3 Talismans of Shannara by Terry Brooks, Legend pounds 5.99 4 Siege: To Green Angel Tower Part One by Tad Williams Legend pounds 5.99 5 The Book of Ultimate Truths by Robert Rankin, Corgi pounds 4.99 6 Soul Music by Terry Pratchett Gollancz pounds 14.99 7 Aurian by Maggie Furey Legend pounds 4.99 8 The Hammer of God by Arthur C Clarke Orbit pounds 7.99 9 Glory Season by David Brin Orbit pounds 5.99 10 The Ship Who Searched by Anne McCaffrey & Mercedes Lackey Orbit pounds 4.99 (The first figure shows last week's place; the second shows appearances on this list.) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Compiled by Bookwatch -----------------------------------------------------------------