Last year’s double-whammy dose of legal thriller The Rooster Bar and ode to bibliophiles Camino Island seems to have divided both John Grisham’s attention and search for balance. The Reckoning is Grisham’s 40th book, an enormous milestone made all the more celebratory in that it arrives thirty years after his arrival on the literary scene with A Time to Kill. The choice of setting and theme running throughout appear deliberate, as does the author’s attempt to break away from several conventions he helped establish, including a complete reversal of moral justification as a defense against injustice. How times have changed.
The Reckoning feels like two entirely different stories haphazardly stitched together, one a pastiche of nearly every well-worn narrative cliche in Grisham’s repertoire. The other a strange historical interlude that seems disconnected from the rest of the story, book-ended by two lackluster attempts to generate legal sparks with perhaps the most straightforward and bland procedural narrative Grisham has ever written. In doing so it presents a mystery nobody seems particularly interested in solving, an apathy that continues throughout this supposed stab at Southern Gothic nihilism.
Our story is set in post-war Clanton, Mississippi. It’s 1946, and most Americans have begun to adjust to the ‘new normal’ of a world forever changed. But some old habits die hard, especially in the Jim Crow south. Longtime fans will recognize the locale; it’s where Grisham began it all exactly 30 years ago with 1988’s A Time to Kill and, more recently, its superior sequel Sycamore Row.
The premise is intriguing enough: Pete Banning, local farmer and famous war hero, methodically plots to kill Reverend Dexter Bell, the town’s beloved preacher since before the start of the war. Once the deed is done, Banning gives himself over to the authorities, though he refuses refuses to tell anyone why, even his own attorney or family. “He deserved to die,” Banning tells his beleaguered son Joel. “You’ll never understand it.”
All signs point to premeditation – an automatic death penalty sentence if the defendant is found guilty – and Banning isn’t about to fight the charges. In fact, he does everything he can to sabotage is his defense, second-guessing his exasperated lawyers and refusing to defend himself at every turn. The case naturally drives the small town into a flurry of questions and second-guessing: how could a man who managed to survive so much, and with so much to lose, commit such a horrible deed?
Nothing, it seems, will convince Banning to come to his senses to not only save his own life, but to save the reputations – and valuable land ownings – he managed to sign over to his children prior to the killing. His wife, Liza, had been institutionalized following a severe mental breakdown, a sad fact only furthering the mysterious decline a proud family that had been the envy of neighbors for generations. When even the governor offers to commute his death sentence, Banning declines; nothing would keep him from his destiny with Old Sparky, a mobile electric chair with a less-than-stellar track record for clean executions.
It’s about here that Grisham leaves Mississippi, traveling back even further to when the war still raged in the Pacific, following Banning’s capture by the Japanese. Almost against hope, he manages to survive both the Bataan Death March and errant American torpedos, escaping to spend the remainder of the war as a guerrilla fighter in the Philippines. This section presents Grisham playing with new ideas, yet still working with his natural gifts to bring attention to little known or forgotten causes with a fictionalized account about horrendous treatment of American POWs, complete with condemnations of the actions of both Japanese soldiers and US military bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, this section reads more like background research for a better and more interesting story that never materializes, adding nothing to the overall narrative or helping us to understand Banning’s motivations for murdering the Reverend.
And therein lay the book’s real problem; none of these characters, especially Pete Banning, is interesting enough to give a hoot about. Subplots involving the two Banning children, Joel and Stella, aim to provide balance to the sterile main story yet never go anywhere, except a last-minute deus ex machina that only frustrates in its sloppy resolutions.
Grisham appears to make the argument that mere perseverance against great injustice alone allows one rebuke from consequence, like some existential cosmic karma. This is familiar territory for him, one he seems mindful in consciously tearing down. A distraught Carl Lee Hailey was exonerated for murdering his young daughter’s rapists in A Time to Kill, a crowd-pleasing repudiation of unanswered injustices in a racially divided south. Whether you agree with this conclusion or not, Grisham was at least able to bring a little heat to fan those flames. Here, Banning’s motives for his actions, once finally revealed, never rise to even base-level moral righteousness. Is the conclusion we’re asked to draw that the ends only justify the means if the intentions themselves pass the test?
Most appalling is how Grisham attempts to strong arm irrelevant facts about racial disparities within the legal system into this story, almost as if he can’t help himself. I understand he’s practically built his entire career around the horrible imbalances of justice within the US legal system, particularly in the South, but even when absolutely nothing about Pete Banning’s legal troubles suggest even the faintest hint of racism or discrimination Grisham can’t seem to help regurgitating counterfacts nobody asked.
The underlying message, which I’ll stipulate is probably well-intentioned, still comes off a little desperate: no matter how bad these white folk had it, black folk still had it much worse. Which I’m sure was, and may be, still the case. But this weaponized empathy only serves to reduce real disparities to a hackneyed plot device desperately in search of approval.
The Reckoning feels like unseasoned leftovers from a writer going through motions expected of him, reheated to lukewarm temperature for no other reason than mere obligation, be that to meet a holiday deadline or out of some misplaced sense of morality. Honestly, Grisham has been guilty of pandering in such heavy fashion before, though he usually provides an interesting story to counter his manipulation. Here, there’s no such story – or barely a story at all – to help grease the wheels and keep us interested. Some have derided Grisham for playing safe in familiar territory before, taunting him to produce more than his predictable, yet enjoyable, legal thrillers. If this is how he answers that charge (no answer was ever needed) I say stick with the formula.