Attention stage parents and theatrical agents: The latest John Grisham thriller offers a boffo part for a Macaulay Culkin-type child actor who can talk Southern. Okay, so maybe that’s rushing things a bit. But no more than Grisham himself, the onetime attorney from Oxford, Miss., whose novel The Firm hit the top of the best-seller lists in 1991 and will appear as a movie starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman later this year. If ever a novel had ”box office” written all over it, it’s The Client, a cleverly plotted, utterly improbable tale about a spunky kid with a smart mouth in trouble with Mafia hit men, a pompous federal prosecutor, Tennessee child-welfare authorities, and the FBI. So guess who wins in the end?
Here’s the setup: Eleven-year-old Mark Sway and his kid brother, Ricky, are hiding in the woods behind their Memphis trailer park sneaking a smoke when a black Lincoln with Louisiana plates pulls up. Inside is a Mob lawyer who’s decided to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. His client, New Orleans hit man Barry ”The Blade” Muldanno, has bumped off a U.S. senator, the feds have indicted Muldanno for murder, and the lawyer knows a terrible secret.
Since Mark is familiar with this form of suicide from watching TV, he sneaks up behind the car and manages to slip the water hose off the exhaust pipe just in time. Unfortunately, he’s caught by the lawyer, who decides to kill him, too, but not before forcing the lad to endure the following speech: ”My client killed a man and hid the body, and now my client wants to kill me. That’s the whole story. They’ve made me crazy. Ha! Ha! This is great, Mark. This is wonderful. I, the trusted lawyer, can now tell you, literally seconds before we float away, where the body is. The body, Mark, the most notorious, undiscovered corpse of our time. Unbelievable. I can finally tell!”
Rescued in the nick of time by the kid brother, who conveniently lapses into a posttraumatic coma and vanishes from the story, Mark sizes things up pretty fast. After all, he has seen The Godfather and watches L.A. Law every week. If he tells the cops where the body’s hidden, then Barry the Blade’s henchmen will surely bump him off. And probably little Ricky and their mama as well. If he refuses to tell, the U.S. attorney in New Orleans, a vain, publicity-seeking buffoon who fears his political career will evaporate like morning mist on the bayou if he fails to convict the mobster, will have him jailed for contempt. Realizing he needs a lawyer, the kid blunders into the office of one Reggie Love — a grandmotherly advocate for kids who went to law school after being wrongly deprived of her children by her vicious, philandering ex-husband.
Readers who prefer a touch of realism in what’s billed as a ”legal thriller,” after all, are apt to find The Client more than a bit silly. Very few prosecutors seek a murder indictment when there’s no body, no weapon, and no witnesses apart from an informant peddling secondhand information. Character and place are purely generic. As in The Firm, apart from a few mentions of Elvis and the Peabody Hotel, Grisham’s Memphis is hard to distinguish from the suburbs of Hartford. Indeed, for all its twists and turns the novel hasn’t got a plot so much as a series of situations assembled to allow the smart-aleck kid and his tougher-than-she-looks attorney to outwit a parade of oafish thugs and condescending knuckleheads in business suits.
For all that, The Client is an amiable enough entertainment, and little Mark has got it figured about right. ”Well, now that I’m famous and all,” he tells his lawyer, ”I figure the Hollywood people will be knocking on my door. They’ll want to do this big movie about the kid who knew too much, and, I hate to say this for obvious reasons, but if these goons put me away, then the movie will be huge and Mom and Ricky will be on easy street. Follow me?”
Yes, right to the bank. B-