1993 was a big year for the movies with blockbusters like Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, Sleepless in Seattle, and Mrs. Doubtfire among many others now considered stone cold classics. Nestled between them was The Firm, an adaptation of John Grisham’s 1991 novel starring Tom Cruise that would become the year’s third highest-grossing film and launch the author into Hollywood royalty. Another adaptation, The Pelican Brief starring Denzil Washington and Julia Roberts, also made a huge splash at the box-office.
The Firm would also become – and remain – Grisham’s best-selling novel, always the highlight of a brand that would be instantly familiar to both film and book fans throughout the 1990s. I only mention the Hollywood connection because the movies have since dried up. There has been no serious attempt to adapt a Grisham novel since 2003’s Runaway Jury, a drought that’s now lasted two decades and even several failed attempts on television.
Maybe because of this Grisham has been open to sequelizing books that inspired his biggest (and most popular) adaptations, especially his first novel, 1988’s A Time to Kill, which begat 2013’s Sycamore Row and 2020’s A Time for Mercy. It would only make sense he’d revisit his biggest success with The Exchange: After The Firm, which comes 32 years after the first book’s publication. Unfortunately, despite the subtitle, the long-awaited follow-up feels more like a Tom Clancy novel than a John Grisham one.
The Exchange: After the Firm is actually Grisham’s second attempt to continue the adventures of Mitch McDeere, the first being a failed 2012 series that fizzled into obscurity. This new novel has nothing to do with that effort, however. Set fifteen years after the events of The Firm saw Mitch and his wife Libby escape into the secretive Cayman Islands, having helped orchestrate a lavish takedown of his previous employer, the Bendini firm, and even outwitting the FBI in the process.
Now 41, Mitch is working in New York City at Scully & Pershing, the largest law firm the world has ever seen. Abby works as an editor specializing in cookbooks. They’re parents of twin sons, Clark and Carter, their lives seemingly back on track as threats of retaliation for their actions in Memphis appear to have been all pomp and no circumstance. We’re given a brief explanation of how Mitch and Abby were able to slink back into society after making enemies of both the mob and the FBI, but it doesn’t make much sense. Just go with it.
Things start off comfortably familiar. Mitch is assigned the sad case of Tad Kearny, a death row inmate suffering from severe mental illness yet is slated to be executed for having killed three undercover narcotics agents in a drug bust gone bad. Mitch doesn’t want the case, having already defended, unsuccessfully, two death row inmates already. Plus, doing so requires him to return to the one place he’d rather not revisit: Memphis, home of the former Bendini law firm and where he barely escaped alive.
The setup is classic John Grisham, all the familiar pieces are there and just waiting to be pieced together; a death row case, possible conspiracy, colorful lawyers, etc. But our hopes of another Southern exoneration are quickly dashed when Tad is found dead in his cell, his demise labeled a suicide by officials and an inside job by his eccentric former lawyer.
From here The Exchange: After the Firm becomes a completely different novel, one with few connections to its predecessor. The death row case of Tad Kearny and the events that led to his arrest, conviction, and alleged suicide are never mentioned again as events quickly switch not just to a different case, but a different country altogether: Libya.
Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s de facto dictator, orders the construction of an enormous bridge in the middle of the desert, built in anticipation of a giant river flowing beneath. Despite successfully completing the project, the Libyan government is refusing to pay Lannak, the Turkish construction company hired to build the thing, the $400+ million they’re owed.
Now it’s up to the legal eagles at Scully & Pershing, led by Mitch McDeere, to negotiate a settlement that will appease both the Libyan dictator and his clients, taking over from Luca Sandroni, head of the Italian offices of Scully & Pershing. Mitch soon learns why he was chosen: he’s American, and Luca is dying of pancreatic cancer, and agrees to allow his daughter Giovanna onboard to help sort out the details.
Only things don’t go quite as planned when the team is ambushed and kidnapped by terrorists looking for the ultimate payday, Giovanna included. Only she gets off easy as the others are brutally tortured before being executed, their gruesome deaths filmed and posted online. Only a lucky case of food poisoning kept Mitch from sharing their fate. Before long these fiends demand a staggering ransom to return Giovanna home safely: 100 million dollars.
From here the narrative narrows to Mitch battling insurance companies and meeting with foreign governments to secure the ransom funds before the clock runs out. There’s very little lawyering here, however, and the finale is so anticlimactic I thought it was a set up for another switcheroo, perhaps a last-minute narrative switch yet again. I almost wish it was.
The book’s 2005 setting puts things squarely inside the timeframe of the American invasion of Iraq following the nine eleven terror attacks in New York, events that could – and should – have added some urgency to the proceedings. But this is never addressed, making this fictionalized version of Libya feel like a collection of hotbed geopolitical stereotypes. It feels odd to say a story that includes chainsaw torture feels sterilized, but there’s little here that feels genuine to the era it takes place in.
At no point does The Exchange: After the Firm feel like a continuation or sequel to the original 1991 novel as this is obviously a completely different product with elements from that book grafted on to better maximize its commercial prospects. It’s almost a given to say fans of Mitch McDeere and Abby will be disappointed because these characters are unrecognizable, and the thematic switch from Southern mob corruption to Middle Eastern crisis management may be asking too much.