Gene Lyons
December 24, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

Not all that long ago, book critics were turning themselvesinside out trying to explain the vogue for legal thrillers. Fora year or two following Scott Turow’s 1987 novel, PresumedInnocent, it began to look as if every law-school grad inAmerica had a literary agent. By 1993, however, things hadbecome far simpler: The legal thriller was basically JohnGrisham, and John Grisham was basically the legal thriller. TheOxford, Miss., author’s popularity had far transcended mereliterary genres. He’d become a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.

Grateful bookstore proprietors say that Grisham has galvanizedthe business. People who don’t normally buy books are buyingGrisham by the short ton: The Firm alone has sold more than 12million copies in the U.S. Strictly PG, his page-turning plotsand spunky; uncomplicated characters appeal to readers from ages8 to 80. Grisham says it’s a simple formula: ”You throw aninnocent person in there and get ’em caught up in a conspiracyand you get ’em out.”

So never mind the tedious comparisons to William Faulkner thatall Mississippi writers must endure. At the rate Grisham’sgoing, it won’t be long before they’re making comparisons toElvis. His agent, Jay Garon, claims that Grisham may well be themost successful author in the history of the book-publishingbusiness.

Altogether, Grisham’s books have been translated into 31languages, with more than 30 million in print in the U.S. andfour on 1993 best-seller lists (both hardcover and paperback).And let’s not forget the movies. Sydney Pollack’s version of TheFirm, starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, appears likely totake in $400 million worldwide. Warner Bros.’ film of ThePelican Brief, directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring JuliaRoberts and Denzel Washington, opened in mid-December. TheClient was sold to Warner Bros. for $2.5 million and is due outin 1994, with Susan Sarandon in the lead role. And Grishamrecently made industry news with the auction of the screenrights to his then-unwritten next novel for a record $3.75million. ”Things could not be hotter than they are right now,”Grisham admits, in his ginger drawl. ”I’d be foolish to let up.Maybe when I’m 40 I could take off for a while.”

Still two years shy of that milestone, Grisham — an unassumingonetime high school jock whose idea of a big time is coachinghis son’s Little League team — recently turned down a suggestionthat he make a run for the U.S. Senate. The last time hechecked, the author explained, senators were still expected toshave every day and wear socks.

— Gene Lyons

Four best-sellers, 30 million books in print, Tom Cruise, andJulia Roberts. We rest our case.

[BOX]

Four best-sellers, 30 million books in print, Tom Cruise, andJulia Roberts. We rest our case.

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