Gregory Kirschling
February 14, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

The King of Torts

Current Status
In Season
John Grisham

We gave it an B+

Suppose John Grisham had written the sentence you’re reading right now. You would definitely have sped straight to the next one. He would have strung it together into something even more declarative and a whole lot swifter than what you just read, and you might have admired it for seeming as easy for him to write as it was for you to read. One of these days the Grish will knock off a completely loony book — say, tracking a hotshot lawyer’s race against the clock to stop the janitorial staff from incinerating the crumpled contract he unwittingly used to win that day’s heated game of interoffice garbage-can basketball — and his fans will faithfully gobble up that novel in a day or two, just as they did all the others.

Grisham’s sterling gift for storytelling — and, frankly, his books’ helpfully large fonts — hustle his narratives along, even the dull ones. Going at the rate of a book a year since he started a dozen years ago, he’s even gotten good at story retelling. Made up of used parts, particularly from his most recent novels, his satisfying new legal drama The King of Torts is nonetheless souped-up enough to assure another Grisham-patented zoom to the finish.

”Torts” is the tale of Clay Carter, a 31-year-old D.C. public defender who lives simply but eyes a bigger prize, just like the quiet loners of Grisham’s last two thrillers, ”The Brethren” and ”The Summons.” In the first chapter, a 20-year-old in floppy red-and-yellow sneakers inexplicably guns down an acquaintance on the street, and Clay is assigned to defend him. Given that it ultimately has very little to do with the book, this murder is almost as throwaway a detail as those red-and-yellow sneakers. Grisham’s reaching a bit in order to start with a bang, but at least it gets the novel going.

With the help of a shadowy benefactor named Max Pace — who bears some resemblance to the shadowy benefactor of, for one, ”The Brethren”’s main character — Clay quickly uses the conspiracy surrounding the homicide to transform himself from a $36,000-a-year government pauper to a multimillionaire tort litigator. With that, Grisham finally arrives at the task at hand. ”The King of Torts” is not really a thriller: The murder smells like a red herring; the conspiracy never really takes shape; Clay never runs anywhere or away from anyone. Instead, it is, like ”The Chamber,” one of Grisham’s issue books, an exposé on a hot topic — here, the mass tort racket by which legal vultures like Clay get rich skimming millions off the settlements they orchestrate between busted manufacturers and wronged, faceless masses.

But, unlike ”The Chamber,” ”Torts” is a lot of fun and plenty illuminating. Grisham obviously holds tort lawyers (”Find ’em, sign ’em, settle ’em, take the money and run”) in contempt, and Clay, counterintuitively, is no exception. Following the odd new trend in the Grisham canon, Clay morphs from an all-right guy into a thoughtless scoundrel, a greedy jerk, and — again like the weasel in ”The Summons” or the judges in ”The Brethren” — a strange person to be asked to root for. But it’s precisely Clay’s soullessness that makes ”Torts” a better read than you’d expect: The sheer outrageousness of his bad behavior propels a tame story over many of its bumps.

When, for instance, Clay starts dating a dim blond Georgian (as in Republic of Georgia) model, you could get mad at Grisham for failing to make her more than a stick figure, but it’s more entertaining to marvel at how Grisham manages to make a dope sympathetic enough to keep us fiendishly reading. Sustaining momentum, not building character, is Grisham’s specialty, and if Clay is never quite an entirely convincing creation, at least the fast pace blows through a lot of what Grisham leaves out; the whir of turning pages is like the breeze that puts the finishing touches on a well-dressed scarecrow.

For all their similarities, ”The King of Torts” is a frisky improvement over Grisham’s last couple of lawyer stories. It is not, however, better than 2001’s ”A Painted House,” Grisham’s one big departure from legal writing. That was an unlikely story of cotton picking in 1950s Arkansas — pretty loony as far as Grisham plots go, but also gripping and quick and successful. To a lesser degree, ”The King of Torts” is all those things too — when you finish it, you’re ready to dash on to the next Grisham, even if you’re halfway hoping he’ll write another book that really makes you take your time, for a change, and savor it.

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