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BOOK REVIEW

Grisham returns to law's underbelly

By Chuck Leddy
January 24, 2009
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In John Grisham's classic legal thriller "The Firm," published in 1991, ambitious young lawyer Mitch McDeere signs on with a prestigious law firm only to find himself caught in a world of deception and danger. In "The Associate" (his 22d book), Grisham entertainingly returns to the theme of a young lawyer seemingly in over his head at a cutthroat law firm filled with lethal secrets.

The associate of the title is Kyle McAvoy, a top student at Yale Law School who has decided to make his first job helping the poor. His plans soon change when he meets with the mysterious Bennie Wright, a recruiter for Manhattan mega-firm Scully & Pershing. Bennie threatens to expose Kyle's involvement in a supposed rape that occurred when Kyle was in a college fraternity. Although Kyle never touched the young woman said to be the victim, Elaine Keenan, he was caught on video at the party where the events happened.

Fearing a scandal and possible legal action against himself and his college friends, Kyle reluctantly agrees to join Scully & Pershing. While describing Kyle's first few weeks at the firm, Grisham brings us deep inside the brutalizing subculture of young associates working like dogs for high-end law firms: "brutal hours, sadistic bosses, unbearable pressure - it was all part of the blue-chip law firm experience." Meanwhile, Kyle and Bennie, now his handler, play a murky game of cat-and-mouse, as Bennie keeps track of Kyle's every move and the young lawyer tries to find a way to evade surveillance and escape his blackmailers.

Kyle contacts his college frat brothers and tries to discover the truth about the alleged rape. Grisham offers us a fascinating subplot involving Kyle's former frat brother Baxter Tate, a trust-fund kid who's trying to become a Hollywood star but is addicted to drugs and alcohol. After Baxter goes into rehab and gets sober, he decides to apologize to Elaine. On his way to meeting her, he ends up murdered at a highway rest stop. Meanwhile, Kyle gets assigned to a multibillion-dollar lawsuit between two powerful defense contractors, and Bennie demands that he steal secret documents from the firm.

Throughout, Grisham unwinds the spool of his narrative at a masterful, page-turning pace that pulls readers in and keeps them wanting more. After nearly two decades as a perennial on the bestseller list, he knows how to develop sympathetic characters (as well as credible villains) with just a few relevant details and how to build suspense with dramatic revelations that come to a boil in the final chapters. Moreover, veteran lawyer Grisham deeply understands the cultural landscape of big law firms and their do-whatever-it-takes ethos.

As the novel progresses, it is the plucky Kyle McAvoy who becomes more resourceful, more confident in his abilities to extricate himself from his blackmailer's clutches. Grisham shows us that the antidote to greed-fueled deception is the trust of friends and family, and Kyle uses his personal connections to turn the tables, to help him escape from the suspicion-filled worlds of Bennie and of Scully & Pershing. Despite his masterful ability to craft a dysfunctional legal subculture, Grisham believes in the simpler values of trust and simple fair dealing. In the end, we're not sure if Kyle has fully escaped, but we do know that he's discovered what he really wants. Grisham is an optimist with his eyes wide open; "The Associate" is an absorbing thriller that's a fitting follow-up to "The Firm."

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE ASSOCIATE By John Grisham

Doubleday, 384 pp., $27.95

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