John Grisham’s second novel, The Firm, made his career. The flashy story of a young lawyer recruited for a job far too good to be true had a great hook, an ability to convey both the tedium and thrill of legal maneuvering, and characters who, while not exactly well-defined, were at least clear enough to be recognizable. His first novel, A Time To Kill, wasn’t initially as successful, but its sentiment, and its concern for the ways the justice system is often more dependent on manipulation and luck than on actual justice, are just as important to Grisham’s writing. In his latest book, The Confession, Grisham has an axe to grind against the death penalty. The result is a page-turner that’s as much propaganda as thriller, but its major argument is difficult to ignore.
The Confession wastes no time pretending at ambiguity; the truth is obvious from the start. Donte Drumm was convicted a decade earlier for a murder he did not commit. Less than a week before his scheduled execution, the real killer, Travis Boyette, steps forward to admit his guilt; he has an inoperable brain tumor, and is feeling bad about sending an innocent man to his death. The trouble is, the system is dead-set on killing Donte, and a last-minute revelation may not be enough to stop it. An innocent man’s life is on the line, and Texas has the needle ready.
Grisham is a pop novelist, and there are a number of familiar elements in The Confession for anyone who’s read his work before, like the flashy, showboating lawyer who’s willing to give all he has for his clients, and the love/hate relationship with the Lone Star State. The characters never get much beyond surface impressions, which at times threatens to derail Grisham’s main point. It’s possible to blame the system’s failure in Donte’s case on the group of corrupt fools who railroaded him to prison, then worked to ensure he stayed there to cover their incompetence. But this isn’t a story about complex psychology or witty dialogue. Grisham uses his talent for crafting compelling narratives to pull readers in, and once he has their attention, he lays out the flaws and inadequacies of a process that facilitates government-sanctioned murder. The Confession makes for an adequate novel, and a crude-but-effective method of persuasion.