Every once in a while John Grisham tries to break away from the very formulaic style that has stood him in good stead through his career and varies his approach. Sometimes this will take the form of a complete departure from the legal thriller genre, such as with the surprisingly good "Playing for Pizza", other attempts stay close to his comfort zone, with more minor tweaks being made around the edges, and it is into this category that "The Appeal" falls.
Centred around a corporate negligance lawsuit against a polluting chemical company "The Appeal" is undeniably a good and compelling read, but it's less easily seen as a pleasant experience. John Grisham is in no way the best advert for the legal profession, but here the process by which 'justice' is served is exposed as a shallow, manipulated transaction utterly divorced from the concepts of 'right' and 'wrong' that should form the basis of jurisprudence. Perhaps this makes it more true to life, but it doesn't make it easy on the reader.
The morally ambiguous picture of law is complicated by the absence of a central character. Thrillers generally should have a hero in them, and there is a conspicuous absence of heroism in the book, and none of them are really at the the true core of the book. The splitting of perspective from the earnest trial lawyers (who, at heart, are ambulance chasers), the supreme court candidate (whose smug superficial piety makes him impossible to warm to), and the hen pecked billionaire businessman (who obviously is the villain of the piece) also means that we're presented with a sequence of ill developed cardboard characters, with whom we have little empathy. While obviously in real life everybody is coloured in shades of grey, literature of this kind does need a core character, who, even if they're imperfect, we inherently want to root for.
Usually polished, Grisham suffers from a number of plot stutters in the course of "The Appeal". In particular, part way through the work we are introduced to Buck Burleson, a former chemical company employee, who now nervously drives a water truck into the poisoned community of Bowmore, nervously fingering a 9mm pistol all the while. Chekhov's dictum holds that if there's a gun in the first act it should go off in the third, and the failure of this to happen here jars noticeably.
Invariably John Grisham charts the corruption and then redemption of an inherently good lawyer in his work. Here however ambiguity remains. Aspirant judge Ron Fisk does go through some form of catharsis, but this doesn't come from self discovery, but instead relies on a level of coincidence almost worthy of Thomas Hardy. This too is only a partial level of redemption, less a road to Damascus as a chipping away of assumptions that is more depressing than affirming.
On re-reading this review I see it does come across negatively, and this isn't fair. For all its faults "The Appeal" keeps interest and was a most welcome companion on both a late evening in a bar by the Bourse in Brussels and then on the Eurostar back to London. Paradoxically the very bleakness at its heart makes it much more memorable than other more generic Grisham works. I'm pleased I've read it, but I'm in no hurry to revisit it at all.