Recently, I read John Grisham’s new book, The Confession. It’s a harrowing journey through Texas justice, and a powerful anti-death penalty treatise, wrapped in fiction. The story is simple. Two days before a man is about to be executed for rape and murder, another man steps forward to confess to the crime. Can the innocent man’s lawyer stop the execution before it’s too late? It’s a race against the clock. It’s also an excruciatingly detailed look at the legal system, showing up its flaws and weaknesses; in short, human frailty. While Lady Justice purports to be blind, human beings are not; no one is beyond prejudice, persuasion, or manipulation.
I won’t reveal the outcome of the book; that is for you to discover for yourself, but reading it stimulated thoughts in my own mind, both about the death penalty, and about writing fiction.
First, the death penalty…In Canada, the death penalty is a non issue, but in my own mind, I have thought it could be justified in extreme cases where there was absolute and irrefutable proof—in other words, beyond any doubt whatsoever. But as I see through Grisham’s eyes, I must admit that although the law itself might be good, it is administered by humans who often have agendas; flawed souls, able to be swayed, bought, or fooled into thinking white is black and black is white. Perhaps it is better to err on the side of mercy, than to execute a man who might have been railroaded through the system. Remember The Fugitive? But beyond that debate, Grisham raised another question—does one man ever have the right to take another man’s life, even in the name of justice? Is execution just another form of murder?
Debate amongst yourselves about that.
Now to the subject of writing…John Grisham’s books are almost all instant best sellers. Many have become successful movies. Most are deceptively simple; the plots could be boiled down to less than 25 words.
A man comes forward to confess to a crime someone else is about to be executed for. Will justice prevail, or is it too late?
In the deep South, a white lawyer defends a black man who murdered his daughter’s murderers. Can he get justice?
When an empty-nest couple decide to skip Christmas, they soon learn that Christmas is (and isn’t) just about treasured traditions.
I could go on and on. What strikes me about Grisham’s books is that he takes his simple plot lines and so thoroughly tangles them, that the story stretches effortlessly into four or five hundred pages. He also often writes in the omniscient point of view, revealing what’s in several characters’ heads: objectives, motives, and thoughts. This creates tension, because although we know what’s happening on every side, we’re not sure if the hero will emerge victorious. At times, we don’t even know who the hero is. All we know is we can’t stop reading until the book is done.
John Grisham takes hot button issues and uses fiction to discuss them, to make the reader think. Long after the book is read, returned to the library or the friend who lent it, the ethical and spiritual dilemmas circle about in our minds, prodding us to search for answers. Story telling to make one think, eh? Ummm, reminds me of some simple parables told long ago by a humble carpenter who changed the world…