Sue, Grabbit and Write: John Grisham, king of the American lawyers-turned-thriller-writers, has sold 40 million copies in the US alone. Books like The Firm put an anti-Establishment twist on a conservative genre now obsessed, like his country, by the law

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AT THE beginning of John Grisham's The Firm - already one of the most successful novels ever published, with its shelf-life far from finished - the Harvard law graduate Mitch McDeere is offered everything: a vast salary and bonus scheme, a BMW, a low-interest mortgage. Think of one of Reagan's speeches on economics, and then double that. It is all in Mitch's contract.

As there are by now probably few people in the world who have not either read Grisham's book or seen the Tom Cruise movie version, it is probably all right to reveal that there turns out to be a catch to this deal. The Memphis legal firm that signs up McDeere is a dollar launderette for the Mafia. Given this secret, along with the partner name-plate for their doors, the lawyers are too criminally implicated to squeal. Would-be whistle-blowers are killed.

'Now what's happened to you,' I said to John Grisham, on a raw January morning in Mississippi, 'is essentially what happened to Mitch McDeere - without the Mafia involvement.'

'I hope. Yeah . . . At times it sinks in. At times it's still kind of hard to believe. It's happened awful fast . . .' What has happened is this. Since 1991, Grisham, a 39-year-old former Mississippi lawyer, has sold, in America alone, around 40 million copies of his four novels. He recently achieved the unprecedented quadruple whammy of having the No 1 hardback and the Nos 1, 2 and 3 paperbacks on the New York Times bestseller list. Last week, The Firm made its 97th appearance in the paperback chart, A Time To Kill its 93rd, and The Pelican Brief its 49th. Still only in hardback, The Client completed 45 weeks on the higher-price list. Grisham has also been a bestseller in 30 other countries. These figures establish him as the fastest-selling author in publishing history.

And, as with Mitch McDeere at his recruitment interview, there are still a few more notches for the jaw to drop. The term 'cross-media influence' used to apply only to newspaper tycoons, but Grisham may be on the verge of becoming the first novelist to be referred to the Monopolies Commission. Just as the sales momentum of the books is relenting, the movies give them a new boost. The Firm and The Pelican Brief were both No 1 box office movies in America. The recent success of the latter - directed by Alan Pakula and starring Julia Roberts - returned the paperback to the top slot in the book lists. (The Pelican Brief opens in British cinemas on 25 February.)

And so it goes on, a process with more of the feel of an industry than of a writing career. The movie of The Client is due later this year. The fifth Grisham novel, The Chamber, will be published in America and Britain in May. The film rights to that book were sold, before a word was written, for dollars 3.75m ( pounds 2.5m). Grisham's overall earnings for 1993 have been estimated at dollars 20m-dollars 25m.

'The thing is, I never dreamed of being a writer,' Grisham says. 'It wasn't a childhood dream, it wasn't a dream in college. It just hit a few years ago and it hit because I saw something in a courtroom one day that inspired me to write A Time to Kill.'

HOW DID Grisham do it? This is a question that can be answered in three ways. There is the biographical evidence, the market evidence, and the cultural evidence. The first presents us merely with the how of his career. The second and third provide the why.

The biographical explanation begins in 1984. Three years out of Ole Miss Law School, Grisham was back in his native Oxford, Mississippi, working in a small legal firm. He was what Americans call a 'street lawyer'; meaning the kind who represents individuals rather than corporations. (His clients were mainly accident victims, although he twice defended people on murder charges.) Grisham was in the habit of attending other cases as a spectator, seeking inspiration from the style of higher-paid lawyers. One day, he watched a trial in which a young girl gave evidence against the man accused of raping her. He imagined the victim's father viewing this ordeal, being moved to kill the alleged rapist, then facing a murder trial himself. A solid enough donnee already, this was given the twist of the father-avenger being black, and the rapist white, in a Southern town, where justice and civil rights have not always been linked.

In three years of 5am stints before a full day at the office, Grisham turned the story into A Time to Kill. During this period, 16 agents and 12 publishers rejected sample chapters. The 17th agent Grisham contacted was Jay Garon, a wheezy, balloon-bellied, cigar-waving New York agent of moderate professional success over many decades.

In the light of the Grisham income from which Garon now subtracts his 10 per cent, many in American publishing now wake up in the night wondering what it was that the agent saw. Garon told me that it was: 'A quality of writing, the ability to carry suspense from one page to another. I think that what bothered other people, where they rejected it, was based upon the fact that the book has a lot to do with race relations, and I think people were frightened of that.'

It was not immediately apparent that Garon had chanced on a fairytale commodity. A Time to Kill - then called Deathknell - was bounced back by the first 25 publishers Garon tried. The 26th was an obscure Southern imprint, the Wynwood Press, which rapidly said yes to a midget print run of 5,000 copies. By now it was 1987, and Grisham had been elected as a Democratic senator in the Mississippi state legislature. An old friend drove round Southern bookshops, touting A Time to Kill out of the trunk of his car. Eventually, he was asked to come and take them back, because they had not sold. The going rate for a copy of this Wynwood Press edition is now dollars 3,900.

But the original flop of the novel had not deterred Grisham from starting a second, which, in 1990, would sell to Doubleday for dollars 200,000, with the film rights going simultaneously for three times that price.

Jay Garon's memory is that he selected The Firm from a sheaf of four one-page synopses the author showed him over dinner in New York. Grisham himself gives the credit to his wife, Renee, who is hailed on the dedication page of A Time to Kill as 'A woman of uncommon beauty / A fiercely loyal friend / A compassionate critic / A doting mother / A perfect wife.' It was Renee who, according to the novelist, announced that The Firm was 'a big book, a bestseller' as soon as he ad-libbed an outline at home one night.

Yet it is likely, given the success of the book, that a Super Bowl arena will eventually be required to hold all those who were responsible for the genesis of The Firm. (An equivalent phenomenon is the 28 million people who apparently crammed into the Cavern in Liverpool for the first concert by the Beatles.) Another of The Firm's proud parents is the American magazine for would-be authors, Writer's Digest. Grisham, a long-time subscriber, has revealed that when he was beginning The Firm, he read, clipped and highlighted an article giving 10 tips for the production of suspense fiction, and kept it beside him as he worked.

In case any readers fancy making dollars 25m a year, I pass on the ten commandments that so inspired John Grisham. They were: 1) Start with action; explain it later. 2) Make it tough for your protagonist. 3) Plant it early, pay it off later. 4) Give the protagonist the initiative. 5) Give the protagonist a personal stake.

6) Give the protagonist a short time limit; and then shorten it.

7) Choose your character according to your own capacities as well as his. 8) Know your destination before you set out. 9) Don't rush in where angels fear to tread. 10) Don't write anything you wouldn't want to read.

All of this is fairly self-explanatory, apart, perhaps, from the ninth commandment, which is a warning not to attempt anything structurally or technically that existing thriller writers have not already tried. Suspense is a conservative genre.

And Grisham's books have pretty much followed the Writer's Digest guidelines. The Firm - in which Mitch McDeere discovers the reasons for the Memphis firm's unlikely munificence - is particularly strict on Nos 4 through 6: protagonist has initiative, personal stake, and short, then shorter, time-limit. The same applies in The Pelican Brief, in which a New Orleans law student accidentally uncovers a White House plot to assassinate left-wing members of the Supreme Court, and The Client, where an 11-year-old poor kid falls into possession of information relating to a Mob killing, and is pressured by an ambitious Southern DA to reveal it at risk of his own life.

But this biographical account of Grisham's career cannot be the whole story. The Writer's Digest rules tacitly assume the targeting of an existing market. To some extent, Grisham did this. The 'legal thriller' had first become hot in the bookshops in 1987, with the publication of Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, a Chicago lawyer. Grisham was first marketed as the new Turow, although there is no real comparison between the writers. Turow - who subsequently published The Burden of Proof (1990) and Pleading Guilty (1993) - would leave Grisham inkless in a writing contest, while the Mississippian would easily lick the Chicagoan in a sales race.

Since Grisham, however, the form has developed like body cells. Just behind The Pelican Brief in the current American paperback charts is Richard North Patterson, a San Francisco attorney whose Degree of Guilt (1993) is a brilliant and complex combination of American legal scandals, from the Watergate hearings to the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. Other bestselling members of the same firm are Dominick Dunne (A Season in Purgatory), Philip Friedman (Reasonable Doubt), Steve Martini (Compelling Evidence), Nancy Taylor Rosenberg (Mitigating Circumstances), and many more.

Every lawyer in America is writing a novel. Scott Turow gets manuscripts and requests for advice every day. In Jay Garon's office in New York, I flicked through some of the 150 legal thrillers Grisham's agent has recently been sent. Among them were The Quid Pro Quo Killer, Blind Justice and Nine Tenths of the Law, one of the problems of the genre being the choice of a new judicial-sounding title. Even Michael Crichton - who is Grisham's only serious world rival for book sales and movie dollars - has produced what is effectively a legal thriller, about sexual harassment litigation, in his new book, Disclosure.

It is not surprising, given the rewards, that every lawyer in America wants to write one of these novels. But there remains the question of why nearly every book-buyer in the world seems to want to read such a book. One important publishing explanation is that legal thrillers are the first bestseller genre to sell equally to men and to women, whereas, for example, war books and romances are largely gender-sensitive. This is probably because the plot-lines offered by the judicial system touch on most aspects of life, from sex to marriage and from murder to money.

But it is also here that we call into court the cultural evidence. Bestseller genres rarely make their sales by sheer accident. The books of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Tom Clancy both reflected 1980s American obsessions: with money and guns respectively. In the same way, the appetite of the reading public for legal thrillers cannot easily be separated from the way in which, in the early 1990s, the court wars have replaced the Cold War as the focus of American national self-evaluation.

In the last few years in America, there has been an unprecedented succession of high-profile legal battles: the Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith rape cases; the fraught Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, accused by Anita Hill of sexual harassment; the Bobbitt 'severed penis' trial; the LA cops accused of beating the black motorist, Rodney King; the prosecution of Dr Jack Kevorkian, Michigan's 'mercy-killer' to the terminally ill; the murder trials of the Menendez brothers, charged with rubbing out their parents in Beverly Hills; the legal troubles of Woody Allen and Michael Jackson. The expression 'see you in court' has become as much a social greeting as a legal challenge.

Some of this has been mere theatre, God's soap opera, but serious issues of racial tolerance, sexual behaviour, celebrity and the dispensation of justice have also been considered in these trials. And this obsession with the law and lawyers - encouraged by the televising of cases, and even the creation of a dedicated channel, called Court TV - is the background against which the legal thriller has risen.

AND ARE the books of John Grisham, the star of the market, any good? Literary snobs, who will just about admit that he is a skilled technician of the thriller form, like to reassure themselves that Grisham is a terrible writer and that the reading public are merely subject to mass hysteria induced by slick publicity. But Grisham's success is so exceptional that I find it hard to subscribe to this theory.

It is clear that, as prose, The Firm does not come very close to Crime and Punishment, or even to the three finest achievements of the modern legal novel: Turow's Presumed Innocent, North Patterson's Degree of Guilt and Dunne's A Season in Purgatory. Yet within the genre of thriller-writing, Grisham is by no means a mere generic replicator. He has a definite knack for atmosphere: in general for the sounds and textures of the American South and, specifically, of a big-city law firm, of a night ride on a Greyhound bus, of a New Orleans public hospital.

The most unusual aspect of Grisham's books, however, is their attitude. Mitch McDeere is a commendably unpleasant hero, who ultimately takes the money and runs. (Hollywood smoothed out these wrinkles in the movie, in which Tom Cruise always remains within the law.) Even the kid protagonist of The Client is a tougher creation than the Macaulay Culkin cutie you fear in the early pages.

And, traditionally, the thriller has been a right-wing form. Tom Clancy, the bestselling novelist of the 1980s, wrote fables of American technological and moral superiority over Russia and the Third World, and was declared President Reagan's favourite writer. The 'shopping and fucking' novels of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Judith Krantz and others are partly sexual fantasies, but also wish-fulfilling fairytales of American capitalism. Among the British bestseller writers, both Jeffrey Archer and P D James were given peerages under Conservative administrations. Grisham's background as a two-term Democratic state senator - he resigned when The Firm was sold to the movies - is therefore an unusual one in this job, and the novels reflect it. Where Tom Clancy's books are paranoid and cynical about America's enemies, Grisham's books take this angle on America itself. Both The Firm and The Pelican Brief can be read as critiques of Reaganism. Mitch McDeere discovers that the improbable prosperity he is offered is indeed a chimera. What the American president attempts by murder in The Pelican Brief - packing the Supreme Court with backers and cronies - is exactly what Ronald Reagan did more formally, while the climate of corruption in Grisham's White House has echoes of the Iran-Contra and Iraqgate scandals.

It is striking that in each of Grisham's last three novels - The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client - the central characters have, by the end, either fled America or gone into hiding within it under assumed names, as part of the FBI witness protection scheme. Filled with crooked lawyers, murderous politicians and ordinary God-fearing Americans who end up corrupted or on the run, the America of John Grisham's supersellers does not really qualify for the insult generally directed at this kind of fiction - escapist. American readers have, in two senses, stopped buying the dream.

TRAVELLING to Mississippi to meet John Grisham, I soon discovered the serious extent of his celebrity. Immigration officers routinely ask journalists about their assignments, but the man who checked my passport at Houston was the first ever to show serious interest in the answer. 'John Grisham?' he gulped. 'Have you seen The Pelican Brief yet?'

The arrangements for the rendezvous were unusual. A phone-call to my hotel advised of the arrival of a driver who would take me to the interview location. It was impossible to tell whether this was paranoia on Grisham's part or politeness, because, despite the stereotypical depiction of Americans as rude and boorish, the US is now the place in which perfect manners are most likely to be found.

The location turned out to be the offices in Jackson, the Mississippi state capital, of an attorney friend of Grisham, rich from asbestos litigation against local corporations. The writer lives two hours' drive north, on a farm in the 1,000-soul town of Oxford, with the inspirational Renee and their sons, Ty and Shea. He was down in Jackson for two days, because, to keep his law licence, an attorney in the state must attend two days of 'continuing education' seminars each year. Grisham, although he has not practised for three years, was keen to meet this requirement.

'I have this theory I'll wake up when I'm 55. I'll be broke. No one will be buying my books any more. I'll have to go back to suing people. So I don't want to lose my licence . . .'

'What are the seminars on?'

'Now, that I don't exactly know. I've been sitting at the back all day, writing the next chapter of The Chamber on a legal pad.'

Grisham is solid but fit, with dark designer stubble and blue eyes which are generally amused but shade towards bemusement when he speaks about the last three years. He is wearing a sports jacket of wide, loud patches. In manner and accent, he is a proudly unreconstructed example of the Southern style that eastern, western and northern Americans call 'Bubba': the jaunty drawl in which 'America' becomes 'Murka.'

Jay Garon, the author's agent, had told me: 'This is a man who leads a good clean family life. He is unpretentious. He is what we call a man's man and a ladies' man. He has this typical Southern way about him . . .'

This unapologetic hickness - as they would see it - is one of the things that irritates New York literati about Grisham. Few other American novelists coach little league baseball and teach Sunday school. Although, admittedly, since his royalty riches, Grisham now drives a Jaguar and, according to friends, is cultivating an interest in fine food and wine.

'What was the starting-point for The Firm?'

'When I was finishing law school about 12 years ago, I had a couple of friends who were top students and they were hotly recruited by big law firms all over this part of the country - Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans and Dallas - and they had their pick of the job offers . . . I didn't. I was not heavily recruited out of law school, but, sort of vicariously, I went through this process with them. You know, what are they paying in New Orleans, how big is the firm in Dallas, and I remember them saying, 'You know, I really like that firm in Atlanta, but there was something strange about those guys.' I got the impression that maybe there was a whole lot more under the surface and I just thought, you know, who would trust a bunch of lawyers when they're trying to sell you something? And that was the genesis of it, I guess. Which is odd, because I didn't think about being a writer then, I was going to be a lawyer.'

Even having become a writer, Grisham is reluctant to admit to being involved in the profession at anything beyond a mechanical level: 'You know, the writing style is very simple. I start with point A and go to point B and down the alphabet and, when I get to Z, I better be finished or I've got a big problem. It's just a very straightforward style of telling a story, and that's the goal, the aim, to tell a story. And I'm constantly amused at the things people read into the story. The symbols and the morals and all that stuff. It was not intentional. It's not there.'

As someone who thinks that Grisham's novels are more complicated than he himself affects to believe, I felt the need to fight back here. But it became clear that the writer regards any deviation from the classic thriller genre as a flaw. 'A lot of thriller writers have been quite right-wing figures,' I suggested. 'People like Tom Clancy and Jeffrey Archer. You're a Democrat. Do you not think that comes through in the books?'

'Yeah. There's too much of that in some of 'em. Especially The Pelican Brief, there was too much political stuff. I have to really watch myself when I write, make myself stay away from the politics, and I'm learning. But it invariably comes out - sometimes it's intentional, sometimes it's not . . .

'You say there are no morals to the stories. But Mitch McDeere in The Firm can be seen as a victim of his own greed, even a victim of the Reagan dream . . .'

'Yeah, he was, really. If I could write the book again, he would be less greedy. He would be a more sympathetic character. I would make several changes in the story. He does come off as too greedy. He comes off as - at times - almost unlikeable in the book because he's so greedy. And that's one improvement Hollywood did make. They did make him a much more sympathetic character.'

'I wasn't saying it was wrong. Why do you think it's an improvement for the character to be more likeable?'

'Well, I think human nature . . . you tend to like people who don't come off as greedy. There are several scenes in the book that I really wish I could have done again.'

One of the sequences in The Firm that Grisham dreams of deleting is one in which Mitch - on an auditing trip to the Cayman Islands taxless paradise - is seduced by a prostitute on the beach. The writer dislikes it because it makes his hero seem sleazy and because the equivalent scene in the film of The Firm resulted in an 'R' rating in America: 'I find it very frustrating, because I can't take my kids to see it. I'm not writing kids' movies or kids' books, but I would like to see a PG 13 rating.'

In these comments, the Sunday-school teacher in Grisham shows through, but it is worth observing that he is the first world bestseller in fiction history whose books have contained almost no sex. In this sense, his success interestingly disproves one of the most cherished rules of publishing.

'Why do you think the legal thriller has taken off in the way it has?'

'I can't answer that. I honestly don't know. I'd hate to try to analyse that. I think it's just that Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent hit in '87, The Firm hit in '91, and this particular genre is real hot. I don't know if it's tied to anything in the national conscience or even public reading taste . . . a lot of people are trying, but you're asking me to analyse something I really have no clue about. That's why I'm stammering and stuttering.'

'But in the last few years, there has been a huge number of big trials in America. So the law is much more generally in the air than for a long time, isn't it?'

'Yeah. And with the advent of televising trials, which I think is deplorable. Suddenly we have the trial of the month now. And when you televise it with live testimony, and all these networks have paid lawyer-analysts, who will analyse what happened that day and make predictions about the next day. It becomes almost like watching a football game. But, yeah, when you have the number of lawyers we do, and the number of lawsuits and the interest in the law, I hope the books keep selling.'

In the short term, there seems to be little concern that they might not. The provisional first print run for Grisham's next novel has been set at around 2 million copies. The Chamber is set on Death Row, and features a lawyer's attempt to save his client from execution. There is also, as in A Time to Kill, a racial sub-plot. This is the story for which the film company paid dollars 3.75m up front.

And so the Grisham phenomenon continues. But, for Mitch McDeere, the dream deal turned out to have a catch; and, while John Grisham is unlikely to turn out to be a front for the Mob, his jackpot may also conceal traps. Some of the pressure is practical. Contracted to deliver novels to Doubleday on four successive 31 Decembers, beginning in 1993, Grisham was already a month behind the first deadline. And, while none of us would refuse it, the sudden acquisition of unlimited millions of dollars has not always been an unequivocal blessing.

'Are there temptations and difficulties in everything that's been given to you - money, fame, success?'

'I've felt no temptations. Obviously, there's a great deal of security that comes with the money. And that's nice, and it's something I dreamed about when I was a lawyer. But you struggle every day to keep things normal for your children. They've got to be raised in the same place they were before all this happened. And that's a struggle. Keeping things normal, it takes work every day . . . a lot of times you don't really know what's happening to you. For example, you'll find people who want their children to become friends with your children so that the parents can know you.'

'Is it frightening, being an American celebrity?'

'Yeah. It is, because there are a lot of crazy people out there. We have not been threatened yet. But it's inevitable, it will happen . . . And you worry about your children being kidnapped. You think about it every day, which is not pleasant, and I wish I didn't have to think about it . . . But, you know, I'm still very new to this. It's amusing now, when people say, 'Well, it's obvious that Grisham wrote The Firm and his other books just for the movies,' because when I finished The Firm, I mean I did not know if it would be published. Movies were unthinkable. That was a long time ago, but it wasn't a long time ago.'

And then John Grisham went, just in case, back to his further education legal seminar. In most American publishing or reading circles, his career precaution would be laughed out of court.

Mark Lawson talks to John Grisham in 'The Bestseller Brief', a 'Late Show' special at 11.15pm tomorrow on BBC2.

(Photograph omitted)

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