If the typical John Grisham novel is fodder for an entertaining Saturday matinee, then Rogue Lawyer is the stuff of a television serial, following its established lead from case to case, with just the right mix of character building and prolonged excitement as necessary. It’s also his lightest, most fun book since 2011’s comedic The Litigators.
It only takes a few pages to realize our protagonist, defense attorney Sebastian Rudd, may be the most cynical character in John Grisham’s entire oeuvre. Which is great, as I’ll explain later. The law isn’t a ‘jealous mistress’, as some forgotten person once so famous said, Rudd explains. “It’s more like an overbearing wife who controls the checkbook.” He’s a rogue lawyer who plays by his own rules.
Well, mostly his own rules. He doesn’t have an office, a real one anyway, working out of an armored van (shades of Michael Connelly’s own roguish Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, whose creator gets a knowing wink here). His only constant companion is his partner, literally named Partner, who’s also his “driver, bodyguard, confidant, paralegal, caddie” and, sadly, only friend. Rudd earned Partner’s loyalty after securing him a Not Guilty verdict for killing an undercover narcotics officer. On at least two occasions off-duty cops tried to kill Partner.
On one occasion, Rudd explains, they even came after him personally. It’s a nice piece of background info that never gets entirely fleshed out, one of several sprinkled throughout the book. Perhaps we’ll learn more in the sequel? Or sequels?
Rudd also has a strange relationship with his ex-wife, also a lawyer, and constantly battling for visitation rights with his young son, Starcher, whose name he can’t stand. These character traits all come into play, of course, because the rules of paperback fiction dictate that small details are often harbingers of future developments; so pay attention!
Another facet of Rudd’s limited personal life is his 25% stake in Tadeo Zapate, a gifted young El Salvadorian mixed martial arts fighter with dreams of a UFC championship bout. He’s never lost, at least via knockout, so the world is his for the taking. Unfortunately, Tadeo is a gang member, though he’s never risen high in the ranks, and is often surrounded by a cadre of thugs and other gang members, many of which are his own family. The seeds are planted for bigger things, and we’ll have to see how they all play out.
Rudd also bets on Tadeo and other fighters, coming out ahead most of the time. It turns out his kid would love to see a fight for himself, something his ex-wife would surely hate. What could possibly go wrong?
As Rudd rushes from case to case, family to family, criminal to criminal, we’re privy to a mind’s eye look at the ins and outs of the justice system. The entirety of Rogue Lawyer can feel like a whole season of an interesting television series, with Rudd’s cases popping up with right the right frequency to keep things interesting.
We first meet him while defending Gardy, “a brain-damaged eighteen-year-old dropout who’s charged with killing two little girls” and currently the most hated person in Milo, “a dismal, backwater, redneck town” about two hours from the city. Sebastian Rudd, his reviled attorney, is the second.
Gardy’s “frightening appearance, satanic leanings, and history of sexual perversion” makes him the clear suspect for the mob-like citizens of Milo. Only Gardy isn’t guilty, Rudd feels, and he’s seen his fair share of guilty clients.
Or there’s the tragic case of Douglas Renfro, a retired Army vet now facing the nightmarish scenario of being charged with attempted murder of police officers after firing upon a SWAT team, armed with night vision goggles and assault rifles, that invaded his home at 3AM. “Warrior cops,” Rudd explains. Renfro’s teenage neighbor had piggybacked onto the Renfro’s wireless – and unprotected – WiFi to sell drugs online. Mistaking the eight heavily armed and camouflaged policemen for criminals, Douglas fired back to protect his family. In the flurry of bullets Renfro’s beloved wife, Kitty, was killed.
The most preposterous, and least fleshed-out, case is Rudd’s nastiest client, a Capone-styled gangster so well-connected that criminal activity itself in the city fell demonstrably after his much publicized arrest. “Rich people tend to avoid death row,” Rudd tells us. But his client, Link Scanlon, isn’t so lucky. For his part in killing a judge, Link is now sitting on death row, waiting for the needle.
Defending Link is something of an occupational hazard; his last defense attorney was found murdered, and with all his appeals exhausted it doesn’t look good. Yet, he seems strangely calm during his final meeting with Rudd at death row’s Unit Nine.
I won’t spoil the outcome here, but what follows is a stark diversion from Grisham’s legalese into Tom Clancy-style action that feels out of place here. Not that I’m complaining; If you’re going to traffic in the preposterous, you might as well go big. Like so much else in Rogue Lawyer, it feels like Grisham is setting up bigger, grander things here. Serialized things, and if that means a few more sequels then count me in.
There’s others, too, some of which are the book’s best and most developed parts. But you’ll have to read the book to discover them for yourselves; no spoilers here. Grisham keeps things running at a ferociously fast clip, the narrative told through Rudd’s internal running monologue, which is mostly cold, clinical expository. I’m sure some will see an alter-ego to Grisham in Rudd’s cynical diatribes and apathy, but I wouldn’t presume as much. It feels like Grisham is having fun here, testing the waters for bigger, more profitable ventures with a stream-of-conscious commentary that’s both enjoyably intimate, yet sufficiently vague when need be.
Fans who come expecting to see a dastardly, villainous attorney will be disappointed; Rudd may be open to operating outside the system to secure victory, but only on the thinnest periphery of his chosen field. His conscious is clear, and while he’s not above a small bribe or questionable negotiating practices, he’s a relatively straight shooter, never succumbing to outright corruption. In short, he’s the perfect vessel in which readers (or watchers…) can invest in, one sufficiently molded yet open to breaking said mold. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the character from here.
An interesting twist is that, for all Rudd’s absolute certainty about how things will come out, he’s often wrong. This creates a unique setup for readers, especially those who’ve come to expect a level of predictability from their legal thrillers, thanks in no small part to Grisham himself, and to have this comfortable reliability shaken a bit makes Rogue Lawyer a lot fresher than it might have been.
With its episodic structure and emphasis on bite-sized cases Rogue Lawyer feels like a draft for a planned series, one documenting the crazy world of a notorious – yet sympathetic – defense attorney. I’m actually surprised Grisham hasn’t monetized the considerable power of his name in this arena yet. His recent sequel to A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row, demonstrated a willingness to revisit and expand the known past, as does his series for younger readers, Theodore Boone. Just look at Michael Connelly, whose long-running detective series, Harry Bosch, recently made the jump to TV (well, Amazon Prime TV, anyway).
Sebastian Rudd even mentions a liking for Connelly’s books. If he joins his colleague in sausage-style legal fiction to turn a buck, I wouldn’t be surprised, and would probably watch.
Rogue Lawyer is a fast, breezy, and genuinely fun read by an author whose written bigger, more expansive things, but seldom ones so immediately enjoyable. It also feels like a step towards a bigger, more serialized world, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Sebastian Rudd live out a few more adventures soon, in any medium. After last year’s dreary, propaganda-laden Gray Mountain it’s also refreshing to see Grisham having fun again, which means we get to have fun again, too. Heaven knows sausage-factory fiction doesn’t have to be the most nutritious thing on the menu, but it should at least taste good.