The Relevant Sting of John Grisham’s The Appeal—Book Review

There’s good beach reading and there’s bad beach reading. I found a copy of John Grisham’s The Appeal at a beach condo this year and elected to read it, having never heard about it before. While Grisham’s legal thrillers aren’t the most literary around, you can always count on them to be well researched and executed. This is no less true of his sprawling 2008 novel.

Let me just say that, if you read it all the way, the book stings. To read it at the beach, like any good beach reading, you can take in the plot fairly easily and not have to worry too much about keeping track of all the characters are up to. Much of it is predictable because human behavior is predictable. And in fact the plot hinges on the predictability of human behavior.

The case this story centers around is a wrongful death lawsuit, the kind where a greedy company poisons an entire town and almost gets away with it. In the opening pages, financially bankrupt local lawyers win a multi-million-dollar settlement for one of the town residents, and you wonder how the story ended so soon. (hint: look at the title). As all the players are aware, the defendant is able to appeal the decision easily, and they do. This puts thew winnings on hold until the verdict is upheld. Even if the good guys make it, they’ll have to suffer more. It’s not like in the movies. As in real life, cases can drag on forever, swallowing up money and more money, and in cases like that, the poor have to hurt even more before they win.

BBenjaminWVThe cast of dozens of characters allows us to see all the influences on the story. Grisham shows us how politics affects a single case, and how a single case affects politics. There are clear good and bad guys, but most people are caught up in some manipulative game of thinking they’re on the right side. Namely, most of the voters in the state of Mississippi.


This is where the story feels so relevant. Not only is the story based on a real life case of a Supreme Court judge taking bribes, it also rings with familiarity when it comes to election manipulation. The entire plot is set in motion by a billionaire assuming (correctly) that he could easily buy a state judge. If he can pay for a campaign to unseat a sitting judge in the MS state supreme court, he can ensure the judge he chooses will vote his way in the appeal.

This kind of things happens in real life more often than most of us would think. It’s an eye-opening tale that reminds us how little we may be actually voting for the values we think we are when a candidate is endorsed by wealthy and powerful people. In the novel, scores of conservatives are convinced by well run ads and speeches that a guy who has never ruled a single case is the last bastion for family values against a “crazy liberal judge” who is really just a moderate. Simply because that moderate is the swing left voter the billionaire needs to replace with a swing right voter for just one case, his case. They think they’re just voting against abortion and such, but have no idea that they’re voting for anti-life ruling to come through on a corporate cancer case.

There are a couple hints dropped in that this will be a happy ending, loose holes where you can see the bad guy messing up and the good guy discovering the flaw. A key person involved in the case is missing, presumed dead. Will he be a surprise witness? The naive candidate suspects he may have been manipulated. Will he expose them? And then the unfolding salvation sweeps in like the hand of God:

The candidate’s own son is gravely injured in what is clearly a combination of corporate malfeasance and medical malpractice. It causes him to rethink his values. We know how this ends, and we can’t wait to see it happen. We feel bad for the guy, and hope his son gets better, but legal loopholes failed to protect his son. The man’s eyes are going to be opened, and he will now realize that trial lawyers need to reform the law to protect the little guy from bad corporate forces. He will be a hero, standing up to the bullies who supported him only to get their own way.

You can’t have beach reading without a good ending, you know.

I mean, there’s just no way this billionaire can just bribe his way into manipulating an entire state’s judicial system just so one case will be decided a certain way. Why not?

And this is where Grisham really stung me. The decision is reversed.

That’s right. See, the new justice, worried that he will appear “weak” for letting his emotions affect his decision-making, votes that no, the corporation is not clearly responsible for giving one third of a town cancer, or a single family for that matter.

So much for happy beach reading. Thanks a lot, John Grisham.

But this is why I ended up a champion of this story. John pulled the rug right out from under me. The bad guys win. I thought the good guys would pull through. The hand of God would teach this justice a lesson in justice. The whole set up was there.

But I think J.G. was making a point: Sometimes in America we reject God, not by taking down the Ten Commandments or allowing gays to marry, but by siding with the rich and stepping on the poor. In the name of what? Loyalty? Money? Saving face? And making that bad ending happen hits a nerve. It makes us want to change something.

I mean, when was the last time conservatives were duped into believing they were standing for values and instead enriching the pockets of already rich and powerful men?

It’s a true story. One that ought to anger us.

Turns out, Grisham wrote this novel as a bitter protest against how many states select their justices. After all, how can a judge who has to run for office using campaign funds from interest groups make a fair ruling that affects campaign contributors? I hope the novel has made an impact in the years since. I don’t know of any changes in such laws. Maybe more people should read The Appeal.

I was glad I read this at the beach. It made me angry, but reminded me that even while I’m on vacation, unjust things are happening in the world, and cozying myself with the illusion of happy endings won’t take away the wrongs men do. Take some time off now and then, but don’t let yourself be manipulated. It isn’t fair to your fellow man.

Case dismissed.

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