Wednesday, March 16, 2016
March 16, 2016: Political Thrillers: The Pelican Brief
[On March 18th, 1915, novelist Richard Condon was born—so in honor of the 100th birthday of this talented American writer, this week I’ll AmericanStudy political thrillers, one of the genres in which he wrote most prolifically. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post, so please share your own thrilling texts and takes in comments!]
On what’s not distinctly political about the John Grisham thriller, and what is.
It’d be easy to pidgeon-hole John Grisham as writing “legal thrillers,” and to be sure almost every one of the bestselling lawyer-turned-novelist’s books does feature one or more protagonists from within the legal profession. But while his second novel, The Firm (1991), was overtly and centrally set within the world of lawyers and law firms, his debut, A Time to Kill (1989), did feature a lawyer hero but focused on a case that linked to not only legal but also social and cultural issues and stories (including race and racism in the contemporary South and debates over vigilante justice). And in many ways those first two novels have foreshadowed a prolific career that has included (among Grisham’s more than 30 total novels to date) a consistent back-and-forth between overtly legal thrillers (such as The Client, The Runaway Jury, and The Last Juror) and those that use the law as a way in to examinations of other issues (such as The Rainmaker, The Street Lawyer, and The Confession).
Given that The Pelican Brief (1992), Grisham’s third novel, begins with the dual assassinations of two sitting Supreme Court Justices, it’s logical enough to locate within that latter category, and to note that it examines political issues through its legal lens. Yet it’s important to add that Pelican also reveals the limits of Grisham’s genre-stretching, at least in his early efforts (I haven’t read his more recent works to see if the pattern holds). That is, his novels may diverge in the particular worlds and themes that set each of their plots in motion, but as they play out those plots tend to follow very similar patterns: everyman (or woman, as in the case of Pelican’s protagonist Darby Shaw) protagonists seeking to reveal the truth behind powerful, shadowy conspiracies while on the run from the dark, potentially fatal forces which their discoveries have set in motion. I don’t know if anyone has made a mega-cut of running scenes from the films into which so many Grishman novels have been made, but I know that it would be possible to do so—and in the moments when a character is running from a would-be assassin, I’m not sure that the larger social or cultural forces much matter.
At the same time, a novel can be a character-on-the-run thriller and still engage with broader themes, and in at least one significant way The Pelican Brief is interestingly political (SPOILER ALERT in this paragraph). The shadowy conspiracy that Darby uncovers (and eventually brings to light, with the help of intrepid reporter and love interest Gray Grantham) involves a oil magnate who has had the Justices assassinated so that the president (a former business associate of the magnate) can appoint new Justices of a less environmental bent who will rule in the oil company’s favor in a pending case. I’m familiar with plenty of political thrillers that focus on the presidency, but there aren’t nearly as many that recognize and utilize the literally equal power (thanks to those pesky checks and balances) possessed by the Supreme Court. Pelican doesn’t just open its plot machinations with the Supreme Court—its conspiracy, like the revelations Darby and Gray are able to preserve and make public, is entirely dependent on the Court’s unique national role and work.
Next thriller tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these thrillers? Others you’d highlight for the weekend post?