Sunday, March 26, 2006

The King of Torts by John Grisham

Although I am an avid reader, there are times when I simply hit the proverbial wall when it comes to the classics. That is to say, no matter how hard I try, I just can't make it through some particularly dense work. When that happens, I have a surefire cure: I read a John Grisham novel instead. That's definitely not a knock on Grisham; what I actually mean is that I can be relatively certain that I can a) get through the entire book in just a few days; and b) enjoy it enough to make the detour into popular fiction worth my while.

But recently, I'll admit that I've been extremely disappointed with the Grisham works that I've chosen. I used to read his earlier books while they were still new enough to have hardcover versions circulating at the library. After a few years, however, I went in search of other writers and left Grisham alone. So now that I'm back, I have a lot of "new" books to choose from. The latest one for me was The King of Torts, first published in 2003.

The first few chapters of the book are "typical" Grisham from his legal thriller days, so I immediately had high hopes for this work. The setting is Washington, D.C., and the reader is apprised of a very mysterious shooting that occurred one night in the inner city. A young man gunned down an acquaintance seemingly for no reason at all. There were no drugs involved, no money squabble, no girl troubles… it was a puzzling case to anyone who was willing to look beyond the surface details. But of course, since the shooting took place among poor people in the poor section of town, no one cared to ask the right questions. It was an open and shut case as far as the police were concerned. The suspect was assigned to a public defender, and that would probably be it.

The public defender is Clay Carter. He's been in that line of work for five years, and it was taking its toll on him. As a graduate of Georgetown Law School, he was worth much more than the minimal salary he was pulling in at the Office of the Public Defender. But he never quite found the energy to move on -- until a stranger named Max Pace comes into his life.

Pace says that he is a "firefighter," someone hired by a large corporation to contain small problems and make them go away before they turned into larger, unmanageable problems. He claims to represent a pharmaceutical company that manufactured a bad drug. This drug is supposed to help people kick their addiction to street drugs based on opium or cocaine. The potential profits from such a drug would of course be huge, so the pharmaceutical company rushed the drug through clinical trials. But this was the kind of thing that had to be tested on humans in order to see if it really worked. So the company started leaking the drug to rehab facilities in different parts of the world, including Washington, D.C.

According to Pace, the company soon discovered that about 8 percent of people taking the drug would go start randomly killing people for no reason at all. This, Pace says, is what was going on in Clay's shooting case. The killer was one of the 8 percent adversely affected by the drug. Pace reasoned that since the use of drugs and narcotics were not really a legal defense strategy in murder, Carter should drop the case. Instead, Pace would point him to the rest of the people affected by the bad drug. Clay would get their families to sign up with him, and he would represent them in a very quiet class-action suit against the pharmaceutical company. Since the company was the one orchestrating everything in the first place, the settlements would be guaranteed, and they would be quick. The company was willing to compensate each family to the tune of $5 million, and Clay would receive $30 million for his services.

Although Clay has trouble comprehending what it all means, he soon decides to go for it. After all, the families would be taken care of, and he would essentially be winning the lottery. So Clay leaves the Office of the Public Defender, opens his own firm (under Pace's direction) and goes to work signing up families. Everything plays out exactly as Pace said it would, and soon Clay is richer than he ever dreamed he could be.

Clay, who had spent far too many years scraping by, then goes on the expected buying spree that anyone who comes into a sudden windfall would surely indulge in. He gets Armani suits, a brand-new Porsche, a $3 million townhouse, etc. He has no qualms about spending all this money because Pace has promised more cases.

True to his word, Pace delivers another huge case to Clay. From this point on, Grisham describes the world of the high-rollers involved in the mass tort industry, the lawyers who make all the money off class-action lawsuits, usually while their clients end up with far less than they deserve.

The pacing of The King of Torts is extremely fast. The rise of Clay Carter can only be described as meteoric, since the entire scope of the story covers less than two years. In that time, Clay manages to secure $120 million in legal fees. But he soon discovers what only the truly rich can ever know: that as fast as money pours in, it goes right back out. There are vacations, planes, island getaway homes, high-maintenance women, and of course business expenses.

On the whole, I had several problems with this book. In the first place, I felt the "message" was off, or was at least delivered in the wrong way. Grisham obviously meant this book to be somewhat of a warning to regular folks about the dangers of greed and excess. But the way he went about it was a bit strange. First of all, the main character was far too likable. I was rooting for Clay to succeed the entire time. Even though he changed for the worse after he started raking in huge fees, he didn't turn into a complete and utter jerk. So at no time did I want him to fail. In addition, Grisham spent so much time describing the perks that go along with living the high life that, if anything, it seems that he would inspire people to try to go out and make as much money as possible, rather than to control themselves and be content with what they have.

Another problem I had with The King of Torts was the fact that the minor characters were never well-developed. All of them were two-dimensional, and clearly existed simply to move the plot along. When their usefulness ended, they simply dropped out of sight without much of an explanation from Grisham. A few paragraphs to explain the various disappearances would have gone a long way towards making the reader feel as though all loose ends were tied up. I'm not sure if Grisham did this on purpose in order to make things seem more "mysterious" or whatever, but it just didn't work for me.

But the biggest problem of all, in my opinion, was the way the book ended. I would say that the last quarter of the book felt extremely rushed. I kept glancing at the number of pages left and thought to myself, "There's no way this can get wrapped up in 50 pages." If I were watching a TV show, I would have fully expected to see a "To be continued..." notice at the end. That doesn't happen with novels, of course, so Grisham did indeed wrap things up in a very short period of time. As a result, everything felt contrived and wasn't believable at all. I don't want to go into too much detail and risk giving the ending away, but suffice it to say that though events seem headed in one direction, they finished exactly the opposite.

Usually, this would be called a "twist" or a "surprise ending," but I think those phrases are reserved for authors who carefully plan for those changes and make them plausible. Sadly, this does not apply to Grisham in the case of The King of Torts. Instead, the 180-degree turn that all of the events take are not explained in the least, which makes me thing that the author was either facing a very tight deadline or just got tired of where the book was headed and decided to end everything right there and then. It was very abrupt, and not fair to readers that had stuck it out that far.

With a different ending (one that was more thought-out), I think I would have liked The King of Torts a great deal. As it is, though, all I can do is shake my head and file this book under "Do Not Recommend."

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