By Jennifer Reese
Updated February 08, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

So he’s not a stylist. His characters are flatter than hoecakes, and he leans too heavily on cornpone court action. But with every new book, I appreciate John Grisham a little more, for his feisty critiques of the legal system, his compassion for the underdog, and his willingness to strike out in new directions, even at the risk of embarrassing himself. Sure, he fumbled with his mawkish 2003 football novel, Bleachers, but his 2006 foray into nonfiction, The Innocent Man, told a powerful and urgent story. And The Appeal, Grisham’s new legal thriller, is one of the more sobering books this election year.

For decades, the vile Krane Chemical Corporation — run by the even viler Carl Trudeau (maybe the scaliest reptile in Grisham’s menagerie)— dumped toxins in the groundwater of a poky Mississippi town. Now the citizens are keeling over from cancer. The novel begins as noble husband-and-wife trial lawyers Wes and Mary Grace Payton win a $41 million settlement for their client. But will they actually collect?

The Paytons are almost bankrupt, but deep-pocketed Krane can afford to appeal, an ordeal that unfolds over 300 agonizing pages, during which we watch a judicial election fixed, the public cynically manipulated, hard-earned reputations besmirched, and justice methodically subverted. The plot would seem far-fetched if it weren’t so creepily familiar; this is stirring popular fiction that doubles as an important public-service announcement. B+