BOOK REVIEW / Fibbies, goons and chargeable time opportunities: 'The Client' - John Grisham: Century, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
IF THE LAW is an ass, what doeEs that make lawyers? Conscientious high-flyers eager to do all tTHER write errorhe donkey-work, or just pains in the butt? In John Grisham's clever and successful legal thrillers they are a bit of both. On the one hand, they work 100-hour weeks and respond to requests for a three o'clock appointment by asking: 'Morning or afternoon?' On the other, they are fierce and inventive accountants, quick to discover new ways to work 10 hours and bill for 14.

'If the name Koker-Hanks crosses your mind when you're driving to work,' explains one old hand to a new recruit, 'stick it for an hour.' This is the brave new world of the chargeable time opportunity, and ordinary life - evenings at home, office chit-chat - takes a seat right at the back. 'Small talk was cheap,' Grisham says of his super-rich partners, 'and unbillable.'

The novel that secured Grisham a large readership was The Firm. It describes the adventures of a young go-getter who joins a snazzy Memphis law firm only to learn - too late - that it is a Mafia money laundry. When the FBI start squeezing him to spill the beans, he finds himself trapped between the devil and deep blue sea. Should he co-operate with the Fibbies, testify and wait for the Mafia to blow his car up; or should he sit tight, make a lot of money and end up in jail?

The Firm stormed the bookshops, and then scooped pounds 2.5m in film rights. It showed that there was more to life than courtroom drama: the law, in this world, fell in a blizzard of subpoenas, plea-bargains and corporate vanity. Who needed undercover cops, when at any moment you could have smart Harvard types bursting through your door and shouting: 'Fees]'

It is hardly surprising that Grisham should continue, in his new novel, to plough the same lucrative furrow. And The Client begins with expert vigour. Two young boys nip off into the woods to learn how to smoke, and come across a fat guy sticking a hose into the exhaust pipe of his car. One of the boys, Mark, sneaks through the grass and unplugs the hosepipe, but the man stumbles out and grabs him. Mark gets away, but he and his younger brother Ricky go on watching until the man shoots himself in the head.

It is all too much for Ricky: he moans, curls up into a ball and starts sucking his post-traumatic thumb. As for Mark - well, he's in it up to his neck. It turns out the suicide was a Mafia lawyer who knew exactly where the bodies were buried. The FBI wants to know whether Mark found out anything; and so do the mobsters - Barry the Blade Muldano in particular. Mark finds himself trapped between the devil and the deep blue . . . hang on, haven't we heard this before?

Naturally, it is a touch disappointing that Grisham should have served up the same plot twice. Thriller-writers hate it when they are accused of being formulaic, but while nobody could level such a criticism at the ultra-sharp dialogue of Carmen and Wayne, the hapless federal witnesses in Elmore Leonard's Killshot, or the prowling, hard-talking suits in George V Higgins's Boston novels, John Grisham really is asking for it. When the hero of The Firm is told about the federal protection program, he says: 'The mob never forgets, Director. You know that.' And what does little Mark say when his lawyer tells him how it all works? 'The Mafia never forgets, Reggie.'

The twist, in The Client, is that the central character is an 11-year-old kid. He does smart, vengeful things like phoning up all the pizza parlours in Memphis and ordering about 40 deep dish lunches for the policeman who arrested him. He says things like 'Hell, no' and 'Thanks, KO, you're a real pain in the ass.' Grisham works hard to establish him as resourceful beyond his years, and has a nice comic riff about all the cop-shows Mark has seen on television, but the little creep still stretches our credulity to the limit. One minute he's bursting into tears and dropping his can of Sprite; the next he's coming on like Philip Marlowe. It would be nice to think of Macaulay Culkin playing Ricky in the film, since he'd have to be comatose for 400 pages; but the sad truth is, he's a natural for cheeky Mark.

But even though The Client is littered with off-the-peg cliches - an Italian Momma with an oven full of hot lasagne, an incorruptible don't-give-me-that-crap-in-my-courtroom black judge, a conceited, media-struck district attorney - Grisham is a very slick writer, and the novel just keeps firing on regardless. And he is witty enough to make even this second-hand plot seem light on its feet. 'Mark was more mature than any kid his age,' he tells us. 'He'd always been mature. He hit his father with a baseball bat when he was seven.'

Grisham is also - and this might be the secret of his success - knowledgeable. The Mafia stuff is just an amiable goon show, but both The Firm and The Client are kindled by a lively commentary on the lawyer jungle. It is all jazzed up, for comic purposes - so perhaps we should call it folk-law. But it is refreshing to read so much detailed stuff about people doing their jobs, rather than complaining about them when they get home. The most prestigious novels are still those that examine private life; but thrillers have commandeered the art of describing the way the world works - the world in which doctors doctor, lawyers lay down the law, policemen police and spies spy.

These are realms out of reach for many professional - or jobless - novelists; yet most modern life is conditioned by what we do, not just how we feel about things. As John Grisham puts it, with reference to his odious district attorney: 'He preferred the office to his home, which suited his wife just fine because she didn't like him but did enjoy his salary.' Plus you can't bill for home time, can you?