Having already scored earlier this year with Sparring Partners, a collection of short novellas – the most prestigious modestly connected to the Jake Brigance series (A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row), John Grishm returns to more familiar territory with The Boys From Biloxi, a legal thriller with an interesting premise: what if two boys with similar backgrounds ended up opposing sides of the legal system? Perhaps something in the vein of Martin Scorcese’s The Departed or a classic samurai / ronin tale?
The plot focuses around Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco, two boys who grew up in the 1960s and had more in common than not; born only a month apart, both were third-generation grandsons of Croatian immigrants, both played on the same streets and in the same neighborhoods, and both would become legends in local Little League baseball. As you could imagine, the two friends would, ultimately, face one another in the only arena possible in a John Grisham novel; the courtroom.
As similar as they seemed to be, fate would lead each onto very different paths on the mean streets of Biloxi, Mississippi as each begins to cleave off to their respective destinies; Keith would follow in his father’s footsteps, a legendary lawman sworn to “clean up the Coast”, by running for district attorney and promising to eradicate the filth from Biloxi. Hugh would likewise maintain family loyalty by replicating his father’s path, an illicit nightclub owner with deeper connections to the so-called Dixie Mafia, a less organized Biloxi-based version of the real thing responsible for much of the area’s sinful activity, particularly in adult entertainment and murder.
The concept of two star-crossed childhood friends ending up on opposite ends of respectable society could have made for a more philosophical fable surrounding destiny and familial loyalty, but in Grisham’s sausage-factory world of annualized fiction this possibility flattens into a more detail-obsessed narrative that becomes so embroiled in plot details and descriptions that any hope of a more character-driven story gets lost in the procedure.
Conventionally solid, there’s a sterility to The Boys from Biloxi that feels unfinished, more of an outline of a sprawling Southern saga that never quite delivers the goods. While it’s easy to appreciate Grisham’s attempt at world-building on a larger scale, it’s a shame the actual story never lives up to its potential. There are few surprises, apart from a last-minute pivot to commentaries on capital punishment, one of Grisham’s longtime bugaboos, coupled with a finale that’s never less than certain. It’s fine for what it is, but nothing more.