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February 2, 2004


Murder in a Mississippi Town (Again)


It's 15 years since a small press published 5,000 copies of the debut novel by a certain soon-to-be-huge Mississippi lawyer. "It sold well within a hundred miles of home, but was neglected by the rest of the world," John Grisham explained in an introduction to the paperback edition of that book, "A Time to Kill."

As we know, the rest of the world quickly caught on. And Mr. Grisham moved far beyond the environs of that first gripping story. But here he is back in the fictitious town of Clanton, Miss., re-establishing the storytelling skills and sense of place that put him on the map.

"The Last Juror" provides the inevitable courtroom drama, entertainingly rendered. (One lawyer's strategy: "Since he could not pursue the goofy conspiracy theory advanced by his client, and since he knew better than to dwell on the evidence, he spent half an hour or so praising the heroes who'd written our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.")

But it also summons other qualities that worked so well for Mr. Grisham at the outset: a young man's na´vetÚ, a powerful sense of racial justice and a neighborly view of quirky Clanton, where local twins have names like Wilma and Gilma, and "hog guts, boy" is a backwoods delicacy. "In 1943, a strange event occurred in Ford County," explains this book's narrator, the publisher of the local newspaper. "An honest man was elected Sheriff." He is quick to explain that this aberrant situation could not possibly last.

Although the main character was born Joyner William Traynor, this Yankee-educated interloper from Memphis is soon given the more Clanton-friendly name Willie. "They'll love you around here," he is told when he arrives, "a smart-ass from up North with long hair and a little imported sports car." The year is 1970, and so-called Willie has had the bright idea of buying The Ford County Times with money borrowed from his grandmother. What could be easier than running a quaint little paper?

As he has done with increasing frequency, Mr. Grisham fuses an element of advocacy with his storytelling. If "The King of Torts" reminded readers of the niceties of class-action lawsuits, "The Last Juror" turns a similarly sharp eye on journalism. Willie initially concentrates on light news and ever-popular obituaries, but when he ventures into crime reporting, he has some lessons to learn. "The next edition of The Times," he writes, as the paper turns its attention to a lurid murder trial, "did much to solidify my reputation as a hard-charging, fearless, 23-year-old fool."

The murder: early in "The Last Juror" a young widowed mother is raped and killed. Her last words are: "Danny Padgitt. It was Danny Padgitt." So things look bad for Danny, and Willie Traynor's Times reacts accordingly. Though its publisher is well intentioned, the paper's stock in trade becomes speculation, innuendo and grisly pictures.

If yellow journalism is one problem for Willie, the Padgitt family soon becomes another. "They were creative and energetic people, always scheming and searching for opportunity, always waiting for someone to rob," he explains about this swamp-grown Ford County clan.

The Padgitts see Danny's courtroom ordeal as an occasion for vengeance, which gives this book its thriller aspect, but Mr. Grisham is after more than suspense. As he did in "A Painted House," but far more invitingly this time, he means to explain the workings of a narrow, insular, lost Southern world.

The juror of the title is the book's too-good-to-be-true noble character: Miss Callie Ruffin, the elderly black woman who takes pity on Willie and begins inviting him over at mealtimes. "So this is where food comes from, I thought to my ignorant self," the city-bred publisher says, upon being shown Miss Callie's garden. (As in "A Painted House" Mr. Grisham waxes rhapsodic about home-grown vegetables.)

Miss Callie, who in 1951 was the first black woman to register to vote in Ford County, wows Willie with the miracle of pot roast (recipe on Page 98) and otherwise emerges as the book's embodiment of kindness and decency. Seven of her eight children are professors. This is the kind of family that makes sure Mama gets a letter from each child on a preordained day of the week.

Miss Callie might be pure caricature if Mr. Grisham did not write about her with such incontrovertible warmth. Here, as in "A Time to Kill," he is able to populate Clanton with flesh-and-blood characters and make readers care about them, which only heightens concern after a renegade Padgitt begins "pickin' off the jurors."

Mr. Grisham is able to unfold this suspenseful part of the plot without forgetting that Clanton is also beset by larger problems. As the book begins in 1970, the town is still racially segregated and about to register the effects of the war in Vietnam.

"Roughly 12 months earlier I had been living on the third floor of a fraternity house in Syracuse, New York, attending class occasionally, working hard to be a good soldier in the sexual revolution, drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol, smoking pot, sleeping until noon any time I felt like it, and for exercise I'd hustle over to the next antiwar rally and scream at the police," Willie admits. "I thought I had problems. How I'd gone from there to a witness chair in the Ford County courtroom was suddenly very unclear to me."

But it's clear on the page, thanks to the crispness, streamlined energy and self-deprecating charm that Mr. Grisham brings to his best efforts. And this is clear too: "The Last Juror" does not need to coast on its author's megapopularity. It's a reminder of how the Grisham juggernaut began.

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