Stephen Brill Review’s John Grisham’s ‘The Appeal’

Thrillers thrive on villains and heroes, and usually these characters are not overly complicated; writers don’t want to confuse or slow the plot. In John Grisham’s page turners the villains are corporate titans and their lawyers, and the plucky, idealistic heroes (played in the movie versions by Tom Cruise in “The Firm” and Julia Roberts in “The Pelican Brief”) are renegade lawyers or law students, shocked into action by the corruption they have stumbled across.

Grisham sticks with his formula for the villains in “The Appeal.” But he paints a more complicated picture of the heroes, while making an important point about how the justice system in more than half of the 50 states is increasingly threatened by the kind of big-money gutter politics that have made so many Americans disgusted with Washington.

Grisham’s heroes in “The Appeal” are plaintiffs’ lawyers, the much maligned litigators who represent victims of alleged corporate wrongdoing. Their excuse for taking a third to 40 percent of their clients’ winnings — even if those winnings are in the millions or billions (in the case of mass tort claims against asbestos or tobacco defendants) — is that their little-guy clients don’t have the money to pay hourly fees in advance of a verdict, and that it’s those big paydays that give them the incentive and resources to take on risky cases that deliver powerfully deterrent punishment to those who would otherwise keep committing all kinds of corporate jihad. It’s an argument, however, that’s been undermined by the spectacle of trial lawyers cashing in on cases where deep-pocketed, well-insured defendants who might not be fully culpable or culpable at all threw in the towel out of fear that sympathetic juries were too easily rewarding any tug at their heartstrings, and by revelations of corruption in recruiting clients and divvying up fees among fellow vultures of the bar who did little more than race to the scenes of tragedies.

Grisham presents both sides. While plaintiffs’ lawyers are the heroes in this fast-moving, smartly constructed tale, they also come off as greedy, self-absorbed and repugnant — true ambulance chasers. In fact, at the small, beleaguered Mississippi firm run by his two heroes — the husband-and-wife team of Mary Grace and Wes Payton — a paralegal asks during some down time from the big case if he can go back to chasing ambulances, literally.

To be sure, Payton & Payton are doing God’s work. They’ve spent years representing a woman in a small town in Mississippi whose husband and son died within weeks of each other, victims of cancer allegedly caused by deliberate cost-cutting spills into the town’s drinking water by big, bad Krane Chemical. The Paytons’ painstaking marshalling of the evidence against Krane makes for a seemingly indefensible defendant. The cancer rate in the town has become 15 times the national average. The town’s water is so fouled that the swimming pool has long since been closed and bottled water is trucked in daily for everyone. No one would consider drinking out of the taps; even showering is a bungee jump.

In the real world, most companies would settle a case like this. (Although in the real, real world, no evidence would be as lopsided as Grisham makes it.) But Krane is part of a Manhattan-based conglomerate run by Carl Trudeau. And Trudeau is not settling with anyone.

Trudeau is a parody of evil, Grishamstyle. No shades of gray here. He’s an East Side Manhattan insider-trader, corporate killer and philanderer so devoid of redeeming qualities that he even dislikes the 5-year-old daughter he’s procreated with the latest trophy wife.

Mary Grace and Wes Payton have had to endure years of the pretrial war of attrition that companies like Krane can throw at plaintiffs. Having ditched other paying clients to concentrate on this case, they’ve had to sell their house and their car, and move with their two young children into a shoddy rental, where they can afford to hire only an illegal immigrant to be the nanny.

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