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Master of the legal thriller, John Grisham returns with 'The Last Juror'

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004

NEW YORK Year after year, for more than a decade, John Grisham has been writing best sellers that bring criticism from both readers and critics alike.

''The worst letters come from retired high school English teachers,'' Grisham said during an interview with The Associated Press to publicize his 17th book. ''They will literally take a book and pick it to pieces and send me 14 pages of notes.''

Despite those armchair editors and some ''really, really bad reviews'' from critics Grisham's aim is simply to make popular books that people love to read. And he has succeeded, with more than 100 million books in print in the United States alone.

The harsh reviews seem to be softening, though, with his new book, ''The Last Juror,'' which The New York Times praised this week as ''a reminder of how the Grisham juggernaut began.''

Still, Grisham, who turns 49 on Sunday, tries not to pay much attention. ''I've sold too many books to ever be taken seriously by critics,'' he said. ''What I think about is making the best book I've ever written. That's my goal every time.''

His latest novel is a return to the fictional town of Clanton, Miss., the setting of 1989's ''A Time to Kill,'' his first book. ''The Last Juror,'' set in the 1970s, follows Willie Traynor, a young reporter who buys a struggling newspaper and thinks it will be easy running a weekly in a sleepy town.

Clanton doesn't stay sleepy for long. Danny Padgitt, a member of a wealthy family, is accused of brutally raping and murdering a woman in front of her two young children. The case is a slam-dunk the victim's last words were, ''It was Danny Padgitt'' and the Ford County Times rivets the town with the trial's lurid details.

But when someone starts targeting those who convicted Padgitt and a gunshot rips through a window about 20 feet above Willie's head, his career choice no longer seems so safe.

The book is sure to satisfy Grisham's millions of fans, with a host of colorful characters and a fast-moving courtroom drama. But it also has contemplative scenes about those turbulent years of school desegregation, the Vietnam War and their impact on an insular town.

''This story was always rattling around back there, always ready to be written,'' said Grisham, who enjoyed living vicariously through Willie, a long-haired smart aleck who spent his college days smoking pot and protesting the war.

Grisham was much more conservative back then. Even now, he's known as somewhat of a sober figure there's no lascivious sex or particularly foul language in his books.

He speaks with a slight drawl and is well-mannered and friendly, even though he'd rather be home in Virginia than talking to a reporter.

Born in Arkansas and raised throughout the South, Grisham was a small-town lawyer and state legislator in Southaven, Miss., when he decided in the early 1980s to wake at dawn every morning to write a novel about a racially charged rape and murder trial.

Published by a small press in 1989, ''A Time to Kill'' sold just 5,000 copies. Then came ''The Firm,'' which sold 1 million copies in 1991 and made Grisham a star.

Each Grisham book is a best seller even a noncourtroom novel such as ''Skipping Christ-mas,'' and even those no longer among his favorites. (''The Client'' was ''bloated'' and too long, he says.)

Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble's fiction buyer, said Grisham ''pretty much defines the legal thriller'' and is one of the most dependable authors in terms of sales. ''He's one of a handful of authors who has the equivalent of the opening day of a movie. We have a lot of pent-up demand, we have a lot of presales,'' she said.

Grisham's appeal, according to Hensley, is simple: ''His books are paced really, really well, and it's the little guy against the big guy.''

All Grisham's hard work has paid off. ''I'm on easy street now,'' he said. ''I have the luxury of writing basically five or six months out of a year. That's a lot of downtime.''

His workday usually begins at 6 a.m., when he walks out to a small cottage behind his home near Charlottesville, Va., and writes about 10 pages by noon. Grisham moved to Virginia about a decade ago from Oxford, Miss., where he still keeps a home.

The cottage has no telephone, no fax machine and nothing to distract him but two slips of paper hanging on his wall his children's sports schedules.

''I guess you can see what's important,'' said Grisham, whose wife, Renee, trains horses. ''We never miss a game.'' The couple's son, 20-year-old Ty, plays baseball at the University of Virginia; daughter Shea, 18, plays high school softball.

Baseball is Grisham's favorite sport and his childhood dream was to play professionally. But would he give it all up, all the books and money, to play pro ball?

''Probably so, if I had the talent,'' Grisham said. ''But I blew my chances because I wasn't very good.''



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