Looking back on John Grisham's breakthrough success
Credit: Francios Duhamel

John Grisham’s The Firm first made the New York Times best-seller list 25 years ago. It would stay there for almost a year, launching Grisham’s career as one of the era’s most successful popular novelists. The book followed Mitchell McDeere, a recent Harvard Law graduate who gets a dream job with a Memphis law firm: huge salary, massive benefits, nice mortgage. It doesn’t take long to realize this situation really is too good to be true. McDeere learns the firm is really a front for the mob, and becomes a double agent for the FBI to expose the criminals before he winds up as dead as his colleagues.

At the time, EW gave The Firm a B grade. Reviewer Gene Lyons criticized the book’s generic setting and leaps of narrative logic, but still proclaimed it as “a relatively ingenious man-in-the-middle thriller” and “a likable enough diversion.”

This wasn’t the end of EW’s coverage, however. Months later, as The Firm surged into a breakout success, the magazine published a cover story on Grisham, the first time the author had been given such an honor. The story found EW writer Kelli Pryor following Grisham home to Oxford, Mississippi, where the author had used his windfall to buy 67 acres of farmland. Pryor followed Grisham as he made stops around town.

“Grisham is a Southern gentleman who commands the even tones and practiced handshake of a politician,” Pryor wrote. “Just before Memorial Day weekend, he parks his Jeep Cherokee on the shady town square in Oxford and orders an iced tea and gumbo at a porch restaurant overlooking the white courthouse made famous by Faulkner. He is greeted by a businessman up from Jackson who has just read his book and loved it. Grisham chats about Mississippi State baseball with the ponytailed waitress.”

Pryor and Grisham also visited the author’s favorite bookstore, Square Books. He apparently spent so much time there that his wife once called the bookstore directly to inform her husband that The Firm had made the best-seller list. After that, Pryor writes that Grisham started studying “the best-seller lists as if they’re baseball stats for an opposing team.”

The Firm‘s success wasn’t limited to book sales. In what Pryor described as a coincidence “that could have come straight from the book,” a bootleg copy was found by Hollywood studios before it was even published, igniting a bidding war that eventually led to the 1993 film adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman. Back in 1991, though, Grisham was bitter that Paramount didn’t let him write the movie script (this was long before writers such as Gillian Flynn and Emma Donoghue were able to write highly acclaimed script adaptations of heir own novels). Grisham declared, “I hate television, and I’ve never been a movie fan,” except for Field of Dreams, a movie he loved so much it influenced his decision to buy the farm (literally). That hate apparently cooled in later years, because The Firm was adapted to the screen for a second time in 2012, this time as a TV show.

Flash forward 25 years. Grisham has now published dozens of novels, and EW caught up with him on the publication of his most recent, Rogue Lawyer, to review the books of his life.

The Firm
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