John Grisham – The Pelican Brief (1992)

Following the assassination of two Supreme Court Justices a New Orleans law student, Darby Shaw, works out that the reason behind the murders was that a ruthless businessman, Mattiece, wanted to ensure that if an appeal concerning some Louisiana swamp-land which he owns and which contains vast oil-reserves, should come before the Court he would get a favourable verdict (the assassinated judges being pro-environment). Because the rarest species of wildlife which would be affected by the drilling would be the Brown Pelican Darby’s summation becomes known as the Pelican Brief. As soon the fact that she has unlocked the secret becomes known to Mattiece and his henchman he dispatches ruthless killers in pursuit. Her lover’s car is blown up and Darby goes on the run from the assassins, while she is also being pursued by the FBI and CIA. Because Mattiece has contributed millions to the President his ruthless aide, Fletcher Coal, is also determined to stop the story becoming public and is particularly concerned with the investigative efforts of reporter Gray Grantham. Eventually Darby, after a series of near escapes, hooks up with Gray and together they obtain the corroborative evidence which will enable Gray’s paper, the Washington Post, to run the story and bring the baddies to book.

The Pelican Brief is the first (and very probably last!) John Grisham book I have read; it is in many ways very bad indeed. The characterisations are simplistic and stereotypical, the descriptive writing platitudinous, the plot obvious, and  the political thought, such as it is, naive and obvious. It is obviously written with screen adaptation in mind and in fact a more than half-way decent thriller, largely made so by the presence of Julia Roberts as Darby Shaw and Pakula’s direction was made in 1993. There are a couple of reasons why The Pelican Brief escapes my lowest rating: in the first place the politics, utterly shallow as they are, are vaguely liberal (very bad oil millionaires, corrupt lawyers and politicians – the more powerful the more corrupt) and so appeal to me. Secondly, while not nearly as riveting as it should be, the narrative is reasonably engrossing as long as Grisham sticks to very short little segments, cutting from character to character and scene to scene (in screenplay like fashion) – whenever he attempts anything longer his limitations (in terms of prose, characterisation etc.) are severely exposed. The saving grace is that one can skip passages fairly easily without losing sight of the plot. Overall I would say that the main thing I have taken from The Pelican Brief is to be able to say that I have at least read  a John Grisham book!

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