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Onyx reviews: The Last Juror by John Grisham

With The Last Juror, John Grisham has found the perfect balance between his hallmark legal thrillers and his more personal stories. He returns to where he began, Clanton, Mississippi, the setting of A Time to Kill. The time is the 1970s and a young college dropout named Willie Traynor borrows money to bring the Ford County Times out of bankruptcy.

Willie has a vision for his newspaper, an idea of how to make it profitable again. His mission is to record the life and times of Clanton—all of it, including what goes on across the tracks where the black community lives. He fills page after page with human-interest stories, obituaries and reports on local sports, the heart and soul of the community.

Fate throws him a big bone, though, when a violent murder takes place and the prime suspect is a member of the legendary, reclusive Padgitt family. Many local politicians, including several sheriffs, have been on the Padgitt payroll, but this time Willie is determined that the Padgitts won't bribe or coerce their way out of trouble. He puts his life at risk by taking them on within the pages of his newspaper and he's not above a little yellow journalism. Circulation increases to record levels.

Though the trial of Danny Padgitt and its effect on the community play a pivotal role in the narrative, The Last Juror is really about the way Willie mines the resources of his community and, in a way, reintroduces Clanton to itself. Under its previous ownership, coverage of black affairs was limited to the former editor's legendary obituaries. Willie decides to spotlight the Ruffin family and their matriarch, Miss Callie, in a front-page serialized spread that illuminates this family's successes through adversity. Seven of the eight Ruffin children are college professors. Willie's feature is instrumental in paving the way for Callie Ruffin to become the county's first black juror when she is empanelled to sit on the Padgitt jury. During the trial, Padgitt threatens retribution against the jury if they convict him and when his life sentence is ended by parole after less than a decade, the residents of Clanton—and most especially the former jurors—fear that Padgitt will make good on his threat.

For years, both before and after the trial, Willie makes weekly visits to Miss Callie, where he enjoys her fine cooking, her stories and her company. This relationship is the core of the novel, whose title does not accurately reflect either the story or its focus. In spite of the occasional murder and some criminal mayhem, The Last Juror is only marginally a crime novel or a legal thriller. It has more in common with A Painted House than with The Firm. Grisham uses the book to explore integration, race relations, small town politics, urban spread, the detrimental effects of department superstores, and the Vietnam War. This is a charming novel, with just enough action thrown in to keep things lively.

Rarely has Grisham explored a single character like Willie Traynor over such an extended time period. He comes to Clanton as an eager, wet-behind-the-ears, brash young man from up north and, through the influences of those he works with and the good people of this kind-hearted town, he evolves into a gentleman businessman who, by the end, has become part of the town, but perhaps ultimately feels limited by it. If this book is representative of where Grisham's literary interests really lie, the best from him may be yet to come.

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