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Onyx reviews: The King of Torts by John Grisham

In reviewing The Testament, I lamented that John Grisham allowed his protagonist to get ahead of his adversaries too easily, which removed most of the novel's tension.

Clay Carter, the protagonist of The King of Torts, also gets things his way for a big part of the story. He's plucked from obscurity at the Public Defenders Office (PDO) in D.C., a job he's held for five years. Most of his clients were guilty and his cases usually settled out of court before trial. He's just been appointed to defend another murder suspect in an apparently random shooting.

Max Pace, hired by corporations to put out fires before they happen, approaches Clay, whose new client was an unwitting participant in an unauthorized clinical trial for a new drug. A small percentage of the drug's recipients suffer homicidal rages. Pace wants Clay to quit his client and the PDO, start his own law firm and represent the families of victims who have been killed.

Clay isn't told the pharmaceutical company's name. All he knows is that there's ten million dollars in it for him and a few million for each family. It's an opportunity for Clay to pull himself from a job that his (soon-to-be-ex) fiancée, Rebecca, and her parents repeatedly describe as "dead end."

Once this case is settled, Pace promises Clay the inside track on a class action lawsuit that could be worth hundreds of millions to Clay. The young lawyer reinvents himself. He buys a Porsche, moves to a fancier neighborhood, expands his law firm and finds himself literally jet-setting with some of the richest attorneys in the nation. His accountant and coworkers, unaware of Clay's fairy godfather, worry that he's hemorrhaging money.

At the same time, Grisham indicts the class action system, which makes lawyers rich while giving the injured parties only a fraction of what they might have received if they had tried their cases alone. The D.C. media appoint Clay the King of Torts when he pulls off a huge coup with the class action lawsuit. Much of Clay's pleasure at his new-found wealth and social elevation derives from his knowledge that Rebecca's parents are hating every moment of it, since they successfully lured their daughter away from him just before he hit the big times.

Readers, though, understand that Clay is sitting on top of a balloon that is swelling out of control. That it will burst seems inevitable. The only question is from what direction the problems will come and how far Clay will fall when the crash hits. The tension is palpable, from the moment Clay starts hiring lawyers at twice their previous salaries, to the moment when he buys his father a new yacht and he goes shopping for his own personal jet.

The King of Torts is risky business for Grisham. Clay starts out as a likable, vaguely unfocussed young lawyer struggling in a tug of war between his fiancée and her snobby, class-conscious parents. Before long he's blinded to everything but how much money the next big deal is worth. Not only is his downfall inevitable, readers will root for it. He's lost his idealism and his character is at risk of being permanently damage.

Grisham saves the book from ending as Shakespearean tragedy, which is where it seems headed. He leaves the reader feeling that, though justice has been served, Clay hasn't been utterly destroyed.

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