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
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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