Like everything else in entertainment, publishing fads have a short half-life. Novels by actresses like Joan Collins and Carrie Fisher have been the going thing recently. And ever since Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, a host of scribbling attorneys has been devouring the six-figure advances.
Still, it's best to separate the books that probably should have been published anyway from the rest of the herd. John Grisham's second novel, The Firm, for instance, isn't even about criminal law. And who would have dreamed that a passable thriller could be written about a tax attorney, the sort of drudge who rarely darkens a courtroom door. A thriller set, moreover, in Memphis, a city not often thought of as a center of international intrigue.
Ah, but that's the point. ''Who would suspect a small firm in Memphis, Tennessee? There's no mob activity down there. It's a quiet, lovely, peaceful city by the river. It could've been Durham or Topeka or Wichita Falls. But they chose Memphis. Perfect choice.'' For that matter, Grisham could have moved the book to Kansas without much fuss. This is not the Memphis of William Faulkner, Peter Taylor, or even Chuck Berry. It's a generic town for a generic story.
To protagonist Mitchell McDeere, however, who is about to graduate third in his class at Harvard Law, the Memphis firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke seems too good to be true. The former college quarterback, ''a man's man with a brilliant mind and a lean body,'' and his beautiful wife with a flawless body of her own can't believe their good luck. An $80,000 starting salary, a low-interest mortgage, a new BMW, a $5,000 clothes allowance, and two country club memberships. How can Wall Street top that?
By the time McDeere discovers that Bendini, Lambert & Locke happens to be the ''Hotel California'' of tax law, it's too late. He can never leave, except in a coffin as a disturbing number of junior associates seem to have done. Exactly why the senior partners can't simply show rookies the door at the first sign of moral discomfort never becomes clear. Nor is it clear why the FBI can't investigate the firm's shady activities without strong-arming its youngest member into being a spy. Judging by the newspapers, tax lawyers with flexible ethics are thick as fleas on a Tennessee coonhound.
Once the preliminaries are out of the way, however, The Firm turns into a relatively ingenious man-in-the-middle thriller, with the resourceful McDeere, his loyal wife, and his equally brilliant brother a convicted murderer with a knack for foreign languages on the run from two ruthless adversaries. Dialogue and characterization are sometimes disappointing. ''Listen to me, Tarrance, and listen good,'' McDeere actually warns one FBI man. On the whole, however, The Firm is a likable enough diversion. B