, John Grisham hurtles through the opening chapters of The Chamber with the unadorned swiftness of a writer who can’t wait to get past his setup and into the good stuff. April 1967: Mississippi Klansman Sam Cayhall is arrested for killing 5-year-old twin boys with a bomb planted in the office of their father, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. Two trials end in hung juries. February 1981: One of the bomber’s coconspirators has given Sam up. New trial begins. This time, Sam lands on death row. Summer 1990: After nearly 10 years of exhausted appeals, Sam stands just a month from execution when a last hope emerges-Adam Hall, a novice lawyer who happens to be the grandson Sam barely knew he had. Whisked out of the South at age 3, Adam decides to return and face the family demon. We are now on page 29, which leads to a question: What is Grisham going to come up with for the next 457 pages? The answer: not as much as you would think.
After seeing his first four novels dominate best-seller lists in the three years since he came to prominence with the publication of The Firm, John Grisham has certainly earned the right to try his hand at something other than a fast, gimmicky, credibility-stretching legal thriller. What’s surprising is that he has chosen as his departure a novel in which the racing-the-death-clock nature of the plot seems to promise more action than he is willing to deliver. In fact, The Chamber, its countdown structure notwithstanding, is a Southern family chronicle told with jarring leisure, complete with a brooding young man trying to reconcile himself to his family’s shameful past, an elderly patriarch attempting to make peace with the evil within him, and a genteel alcoholic aunt hiding vodka bottles and family skeletons.
That’s a curiously rich milieu for a Grisham novel, and it allows the author to do some of his best writing since his first novel, A Time to Kill, which shares with The Chamber a Mississippi setting and a moseying pace. As 26-year-old Adam, a superachieving, driven loner who could be a very close cousin to The Firm’s Mitch McDeere, arrives in Mississippi for the first of many encounters with his apparently unrepentant grandfather, Grisham slows down, feeling his way into the tense, spiky relationship between lawyer and client.
In many ways, his measured approach pays off. The controlled, even storytelling in The Chamber is a welcome contrast to the rushed, gotta-write-the-book-so-they-can-put-Julia-Roberts-in-the-movie style of The Pelican Brief. And in Sam, who greets his newest lawyer in a “pleasant, even” tone with the salutation, “You Jew boys never quit, do you?” Grisham gives us one of his most fully realized characters, “a real live terrorist from the distant era of Freedom Riders and church bombings” who is strangely aware that the world has passed him by. As Sam sits (and sits, and sits) in the maximum security unit of the Mississippi prison known as Parchman, Grisham uses the extra pages of one of his longest, densest novels to create an assiduously detailed portrait of life on death row — when inmates shower, what they eat, how many books they can have in their cells — that culminates in a coolly specific, gear-by-gear explanation of exactly how a prison gas chamber functions.
What The Chamber doesn’t offer is a single moment of suspense, a serious flaw in a novel that, for all its filigree, is fundamentally about a lawyer trying to save a man from execution. In one way, Grisham has snagged himself on a plot hook that prevents him from allowing anything truly interesting to happen until the last chapter. It’s not giving much away to note that there are only two possible outcomes to this story, which means that several hundred intermediate pages of Sam and Adam’s strategy discussions, hastily contrived appeals, brilliant last-minute tactics, and meandering familial conversations add up to very little. Grisham, like the sketchily depicted hero of his book, spends most of The Chamber’s length playing for time.
That leaves readers with a problem: Subtract the suspense from a John Grisham novel and what are you left with? In The Chamber, Grisham substitutes fake suspense. A psycho with many aliases who engineered the bombing for which Sam was convicted shows up every hundred pages or so to lurk and preserve his status as resident red herring. A creepy martinet who is put in charge of bringing off the execution seems on the verge of madness but never gets there. Adam almost gets fired by the personnel committee of his enormous firm but saves his job. In The Chamber, long-buried family secrets don’t explode; they simply emerge. Are there things we don’t know about Sam’s crime? Not really. Will the novel’s outcome surprise us? Not exactly. In a way, Grisham’s refusal to create another movie-ready pop artifact is admirable. The Chamber contains neither a single romantic interlude nor anything that could remotely pass for an action scene — which, considering the volley of frantic photocopying that ended The Firm, may be a blessing. But something more vital is missing as well. In The Chamber, John Grisham has written his first novel in which things are exactly what they seem. B-
The decision to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was reached with relative ease. Only three people were involved in the process. The first was the man with the money. The second was a local operative who knew the territory. And the third was a young patriot and zealot with a talent for explosives and an astonishing knack for disappearing without a trail. After the bombing, he fled the country and hid in Northern Ireland for six years.
The lawyer’s name was Marvin Kramer, a fourth-generation Mississippi Jew whose family had prospered as merchants in the Delta. He lived in an antebellum home in Greenville, a river town with a small but strong Jewish community, a pleasant place with a history of little racial discord. He practiced law because commerce bored him. Like most Jews of German descent, his family had assimilated nicely into the culture of the Deep South, and viewed themselves as nothing but typical Southerners who happened to have a different religion. Anti-Semitism rarely surfaced. For the most part, they blended with the rest of established society and went about their business.
Marvin was different. His father sent him up North to Brandeis in the late fifties. He spent four years there, and when he returned to Greenville in 1964 the civil rights movement had center stage in Mississippi. Marvin got in the thick of it. Less than a month after opening his little law office, he was arrested along with two of his Brandeis classmates for attempting to register black voters. His father was furious. His family was embarrassed, but Marvin couldn’t have cared less. He received his first death threat at the age of twenty-five, and started carrying a gun.