Gene Lyons
May 24, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Runaway Jury

Current Status
In Season
128 minutes
Wide Release Date
John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Beals, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy
Gary Fleder
20th Century Fox Film Corporation
Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Mystery and Thriller, Drama

We gave it a B+

It’s tempting to call John Grisham the Robert Redford of the legal-thriller industry: a popular artist increasingly eager to use his work in the service of broadly political causes. Not that he’s turning into a left-wing activist. The villains in his David-and-Goliath plots tend to be wicked individuals inside large, amorphous organizations held suspect by Americans of all leanings.

His last book, The Rainmaker, depicted a corrupt insurance company trying to swindle a dying man out of his health-care benefits. In his new thriller, The Runaway Jury, the bad guys are tobacco-company executives, their fat-cat attorneys, and a remarkably sleazy team of behind-the-scenes operatives whose job it is to make sure that cigarette manufacturers never lose a product-liability lawsuit no matter what. No crooked tactic short of murder is beneath them — bribery, blackmail, smears, shakedowns. And that leads to the novel’s one real problem: For the longest time it’s hard to tell if there are any decent characters in the story at all.

Indeed, there will be times during the ingeniously narrated tale — The Runaway Jury has Grisham’s most complicated plot to date — when some readers may feel, to paraphrase a Southern proverb, that the author has done quit entertainin’ and gone to preachin’. On the other hand, in Grisham’s native Mississippi, preaching has always been one of the most popular forms of public entertainment, and he sure does it well.

The Runaway Jury‘s action takes place in Biloxi, a resort on the Mississippi gulf coast. Due to the state’s generous tort laws, experts believe that the widow Celeste Wood’s lawsuit against the manufacturers of the cigarettes she claims caused her husband’s death stands a good chance. The stakes are enormous. ”Sixteen trials so far,” Grisham writes, ”and Big Tobacco had won them all, but the pressure was mounting. And the first time a jury handed out a few million to a widow, then all hell would break loose.”

Enter Rankin Fitch, with his ”fat face and sinister goatee,” a hired hand who’s ”sabotaged more juries than any person in the history of American jurisprudence.” It’s Rankin’s unpleasant job to spy on would-be jurors, investigate their habits and intimate lives, probe their financial and medical records — do anything he can to predict how they’re apt to vote or ways they can be squeezed.

But there’s one juror he can’t figure, Nicholas Easter by name, a handsome, intelligent young man who lives a monastic life in a cheap apartment and whose past remains an impenetrable mystery. Who is he, and what is he up to? By withholding Easter’s true identity and motives from the reader, Grisham generates considerable suspense. But at what price? How will readers react to an extremely complex story in which there are no clearly sympathetic characters?

Add to that the difficulty of keeping straight the identities of 12 jurors, a passel of lawyers, and a varied cast of goons and heavies, and Grisham has set himself quite a challenge. Throw in lots of legal maneuvering and seemingly endless expert testimony on the Evil Weed, and The Runaway Jury ought to be well nigh unreadable. Except that it’s not. Give John Grisham 75 pages or so to get you hooked, and that rascal will keep you up reading half the night.

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