Book review: The Reckoning by John Grisham

Slow burn historical. So, how does Grisham’s switch to historical fiction work? Not too well, as it turns out. The two major culprits are worldview and pacing.

John Grisham is well known for his taut legal thrillers. Fast-paced, set in the modern world, dealing with the intricacies of American law, a couple of twists — we usually know what to expect. With his newest work, The Reckoning, Grisham breaks out of his comfort zone and gives us a Southern Gothic novel set in World War II-era Mississippi state. But true to his writing, he begins the story with a murder.

Pete Banning is a prominent landowner in Clanton, Mississippi. He’s also a decorated war hero who saw extreme action in World War II. One morning, he wakes up, goes about his morning routine, and then calmly drives down to the Methodist church in town, takes out his gun and shoots the local preacher dead. He makes no attempt to escape or hide, and is quickly arrested. But when asked for a reason, he refuses to justify or explain himself at all.

The incident sends shock waves through the community. Pete’s wife, confined to a sanatorium, is suspected to be involved in whatever caused the killing. His children, in school at the time, are asked to keep away from the town. Only his sister is around to help. Although Pete’s lawyer puts up a brave fight, Pete is condemned to death by electric chair, since he is unwilling to offer any sort of self-defense even now. Appealing against the decision may or may not help. But things are going to get worse, with punitive claims coming in on Pete’s properties too.

The story now shifts to a flashback — Pete’s experiences during the war. He was one of the soldiers trapped in the Philippines during the Japanese attack, and was captured and walked the Bataan Death March in which 500 American soldiers and 10,000-plus Filipino soldiers died at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Thereafter, Pete manages to escape the prisoner camp (though his family back home is informed that he is dead).

Fast-paced, set in the modern world, dealing with the intricacies of American law, a couple of twists — we usually know what to expect. With his newest work, The Reckoning, Grisham breaks out of his comfort zone and gives us a Southern Gothic novel set in World War II-era Mississippi state. But true to his writing, he begins the story with a murder.

He goes on to join a rebel guerilla force that harassed the Japanese during their occupation of the country. Grisham goes into excruciating detail on each of these stages of Pete’s journey, and it’s clear he has done his research. Finally, Pete returns home to a joyous welcome by his family and the town.

What happened in between that welcome, and that fateful day of the murder, that made Pete resolve to kill another man? The suspense is only broken in the final few pages. But before that, we see the gradual downfall of his entire family, and the dissolution of their landowning, genteel lifestyle. Multiple appeals to the court worm their way through the system. Pete’s lawyers are now fighting to save his children’s rights to the land, while the children are adjusting to the new, egalitarian world post the war. The ending does not bring too much of a surprise, in fact, not even redeeming Pete completely. It’s just another reminder of how the world changed from the 19th to the 20th century. More than anything else, Pete was guilty of not keeping up with the times.

So, how does Grisham’s switch to historical fiction work? Not too well, as it turns out. The two major culprits are worldview and pacing.

For a legal thriller, it absolutely makes sense to focus on the twists — Grisham has never seen much need for diversity or in-depth characters. But if a major section of your story is going to be set in the Philippines during the war, and you have barely any named Filipino characters, leave alone any that advance the action, you’re doing something wrong. The mercenary units that fought the Japanese were largely staffed by Filipinos, but to read this book, you’d think it was all American good boys.

In the Mississippi section, Grisham neither overtly supports nor condemns the attitude towards the American-African workers on the farm, portraying them as just a fact of life. But he makes all those characters stereotypes, subtly undermining them. Pete’s decision involves some of these characters, but we never quite get the chance to explore the impact of the final revelation.

That brings us to the pacing. The book crawls along in a slow march itself, withering in the sun.

One expects the whole war section, at nearly 200 pages, to have a direct relevance to the denouement, but there isn’t any connection other than explaining that war is bad. The long, slow spiralling down of the family could easily have been shortened too. A master like Faulkner (who has a cameo in this book), would probably have written the story in 20 pages, most focusing on the aftermath itself.

All in all: if you’re a fan of Grisham, and can read 500-page historical tomes without effort, you could consider this for a beach read. Others, you’re not missing much.

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Book review: The Reckoning by John Grisham

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