|Gene Hackman and Tom Cruise in The Firm
I start with the location of Grisham’s lawyers. Six of the books involve lawyers from Mississippi. Three involve Memphis lawyers which, until I looked into Grisham’s life, I did not realize is across the river from Southaven, Mississippi where Grisham practiced law. Another pair are set in Virginia where Grisham has a residence. Three are set in Washington, D.C. which is very close to Virginia. For 14 of his 20 books he has written about lawyers in areas of America he knows well. What is striking is that none of his books are set further west than Texas and there was only one book set there.
The majority of Grisham’s lawyers, 13 out of 20 books, conduct litigation, usually at the trial level. It is little surprise that most of the books feature court cases. What I admire about Grisham is that he has been able to write 7 books that do not focus on the courtroom. Not another writer of legal mysteries has an equal number of non-courtroom books.
Grisham’s lawyers are split between small firms and large firms. A few are not members of firms at all. I counted 9 ½ books featuring small firm lawyers while 5 ½ books involve big firms. The halves relate to The Litigators where the lawyers started out split between big and small though they all ended up in a small firm. What is very clear from the books is that Grisham has little regard for big firms. I am not sure whether that is from his real life background of practicing in small firms or a dislike of big firm law. It does make for better fiction to have the small firm lawyers battling against the odds. It is hard to feel empathy for the big guys.
What I found surprising in my analysis was the distribution of the books between criminal and civil cases. Most mysteries involve criminal cases. Indeed, the genre is commonly identified as crime fiction. Criminal trials tend to be more exciting though there is just as much drama available in civil cases. I believe books about criminal case are definitely easier to write. The issues and evidence in criminal trials is usually significantly less complex than civil trials. It takes more research to write a book based on a civil case. Grisham goes against the trend with 8 of his books involving criminal law and 12 set in civil law. There may be a lesson for writers considering fiction involving lawyers that the most successful writer of legal mysteries has a majority of the books not involving criminal law.
The most striking statistic is that there are only 2 books in which women are the lead characters while a third has a woman and man team. I do not know why there are not more female lawyers in Grisham’s world.
Grisham does not shy away from big issues. In particular, he has written two books, The Chamber and The Confession, that will challenge every reader to think about the death penalty.
Of the characteristics that help make Grisham’s books successful I note that his lawyers are skilful careful planners. It is a true life characteristic of lawyers. Grisham’s lawyers, like other fictional lawyers, are clever, even brilliant at times. Unlike some other fictional lawyers they do not succeed or fail by coincidence or luck or unexpected events. He has strong elements of logic in each of his books. None of his lawyers have incredible lives. They are credible lawyers.
I look forward to reading about many more Grisham lawyers. I expect them to be unique and interesting.