The Guardians may not be the worst John Grisham novel, but it’s certainly the worst of John Grisham. Honest fans will recognize many of the author’s trademarks sprinkled throughout this fictionalized tale of exonerating wrongly convicted men, and will accept his oversimplification of the judicial system as long as there’s a rousing adventure among the legalese.
Cullen Post is a 48 year-old lawyer who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, though the clerical collar he sometimes wears is more costume than creed, realizing the manipulative effect is has on people. Fed up with being just another criminal defense attorney, he’s since dedicated his life to passionately advocating on behalf of those he believes the system has failed. Already pessimistic about his profession, Post isn’t above bending limits in the pursuit of justice. “We, the good guys, often find that getting our hands dirty is the only way to save our clients.” Cue the collar.
To accomplish this he works for Guardian Ministries, a nonprofit legal defense outfit with a mandate straight from heaven itself. “Jesus said to remember the prisoners,” says founder Vicki Gourley, and so shall Guardian Ministries. Assisting him is Francois “Frankie” Tatum, their first client and first exoneree, freed after serving 14 years of a life sentence. Those years didn’t go to waste, however; while imprisoned he absorbed legal knowledge like a sponge, and once freed became an indispensable part of the Guardian Ministries team. As a black man navigating the South’s seedier elements Frankie is able to blend in more readily than a white man with the best intentions ever could.
The way the narrative follows Cullen Post hopping from one client to the next, each convicted of very different and heinous crimes, almost feels episodic by design, as if Grisham is laying the foundation for a streaming series or whatever Amazon or Hulu calls them now. I don’t blame him; take a look at the glut of new Stephen King and Micheal Connelly adaptations and remember that Grisham once ruled Hollywood’s box-office – why not snag a miniseries while the iron is hot?
But the real focus concerns one Quincy Miller, a black man that’s been in prison for 22 years for the murder of Keith Russo, the lawyer who had previously handled Quincy’s nasty divorce. The settlement didn’t please Quincy, whose paychecks were devoured by child support and alimony garnishments. Events soon spiraled out of control and Quincy’s life would take one wrong turn after another, with Russo’s widow alleging he’d stop by the office and threaten the lawyer he felt ruined his life.
A quick glance at the so-called “evidence” would show a heavily stacked deck against the defendant. The alleged murder weapon – a 12-gauge shotgun – was never recovered. A blood-splattered flashlight found in the trunk of Quincy’s car led a forensic expert to testify the “blood” speckles were evidence it was used in the crime, despite the fact he’d never personally examined the flashlight, his analysis based solely on viewing color photos. Worse, the flashlight itself went missing months before the trial even started.
The only real “evidence” given at Quincy’s trial was testimony from his estranged ex-wife, who claimed to see him race from the scene and, more damning, that she believed Quincy owned a shotgun. The final injustice: the trial took place in a county with a 83 percent white population – with just a single black person sitting on a jury of his “peers”. By all accounts, he never stood a chance.
Longtime Grisham fans can expect most of the usual twists and turns to help turn what might have been a mundane tale of redemption (for both lawyer and client) into something far more theatrical and – allegedly – thrilling. There’s just one problem: there’s very few “thrills” to be had in this legal thriller, and the legal work itself becomes highly questionable as well.
I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but there’s no tension, no drama, no sense that anything (or anyone) is ever really at risk, only that Cullen Post’s “faith” in his abilities to help free a wrongly convicted man will be enough to overcome whatever obstacles his team face on their crusade. Worse, whatever slight tension is present early on quickly fades as the narrative transitions from first-person reportage to a dull investigation around the cartel and crocodiles. The any story involving the death penalty, cartels and crocodiles could be so tedious is actually quite impressive.
In the Author’s Notes section Grisham shares what inspired him to write The Guardians, which is (very loosely) based on the real-life case of Texas inmate Joe Bryan, a 78-year-old who’s spent the last thirty years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife, Mickey Bryan. Many of the details of his case mimic those in Grisham’s story, the most egregious being testimony about blood splatters evidence his defenders – and even the prosecution’s own expert forensic witness – now call “junk” evidence.
It’s a harrowing case from which few easy conclusions can – should – be drawn. But that hasn’t stopped Grisham from appropriating another “real” case for his novel, adding layers of racial muckraking that feel exploitative and manipulative, even in the service of the greater good.
I guarantee – even going so far as to place a sucker’s bet – that lazier reviewers for this book will cite Grisham’s timeliness and call to action for legal reform, slavishly gushing over how this story – while fictional – puts a necessary spotlight on systemic injustice minorities face in this country. There’s some truth to this, clearly, and having one of the world’s most popular authors support the cause is a noble and noteworthy thing.
However, exoneration and successful appeals for post-conviction relief are rarely, forgive me, as legally and morally black and white as social justice advocates (and novelists) would have you believe. Too often the face of judicial injustice is a black one, outrageous sentences and erasure of due process affecting African-American defendants disproportionately from white defendants serve as shameful holdovers from a darker, best forgotten time. Joe Bryan, who is unmistakably white, has his real story transposed onto a black and entirely fictional doppelganger, almost as if Grisham felt his case wouldn’t stir enough outrage on its own. Not only is this gross, it’s actually racist.
The lackadaisical way Grisham reduces the complexity of a real cases into such easily digestible, straightforward bites is almost comically simple. Not once, but twice do we listen to sorrowful judges apologizing to wrongly convicted men in nearly identical speeches. Talk of finding the real killers or the impact of survivors is quickly and hastily brushed off, lest they remind the already convinced that “freeing” the convicted isn’t always about proving innocence, or about innocence at all sometimes. “Wrongly convicted” and “innocent” can be very different things, though you’d never consider that reading The Guardians.
Quincy’s innocence is never in doubt, the charges against him so overwhelmingly lopsided that readers with delicate sensibilities will never face the moral conundrum of having to *gasp* even consider that he may have been justly convicted. His eventual exoneration – less surprising than an episode of Matlock – allows Grisham to present readers a kind of narrative test case to make them sympathetic without that unpleasantness of objectivity.
At the heart and center of The Guardians is really Grisham championing a cause worth championing – particularly the work done by organizations such as The Innocence Project to help exonerate and free wrongly imprisoned (and innocent) men and women, many who have spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Another real-life inspiration for The Guardians is Centurion Ministries; Grisham suggests sending them a few bucks – and I agree. Save your money and send it to them instead.