Best-selling author John Grisham, who penned legal thrillers like 'A Time to Kill' and 'The Firm,' celebrates his 66th birthday this month. Photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images
John Grisham: The Essential Reading List
From his most renowned court room dramas to his latest work set in a different kind of court, we pare down the iconic author's extensive body of work to a list of must-reads. / BY Athena McKenzie / February 5th, 2021
“My name became a brand, and I’d love to say it was the plan from the start. But the only plan was to keep writing books. And I’ve stuck to that ever since.” —John Grisham in a 2011 interview with The Guardian
The name John Grisham is synonymous with “master of the legal thriller,” and he’s a writer who took “write what you know” to heart. Long before the author sold more than 300 million books, he was working 60-plus hours a week at a small Mississippi law firm, making time during early mornings and courtroom recesses to write his first novel — the tale of a young Mississippi lawyer fighting for his client’s life. Since publishing A Time to Kill in 1989, he has written 30 novels, one work of non-fiction, a collection of stories and seven novels for young readers. There are currently more than 300 million John Grisham books in print worldwide (and they have been translated into 40 languages). With their high-stakes drama and legal intrigues, it’s not surprising that many of his novels have been turned into films (including titles not listed below, such as The Rainmaker, The Client and The Pelican Brief).
To celebrate John Grisham’s 66th birthday on Feb. 8, we’ve compiled a list of his essential works, and while every Grisham book is worth reading, these offer a cross section of his talents.
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A Time to Kill
A Time to Kill is John Grisham’s origin story. Rejected by most of the major publishers, the book was published by Wynwood, a small press, in 1989. Grisham famously sold copies of this edition throughout the south from the trunk of his car while working on his next book. (If you own a copy of the original edition, you already know how valuable it is.) A Time to Kill is a powerful read, a frequently shocking examination of racial violence inspired, in part, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Many people were introduced to the work by the film adaptation, starring a then relatively unknown Matthew McConaughey. Grisham has returned to its characters and setting a number of times, including in a sequel, A Time for Mercy, published last year (and the author has said he wants McConaughey to star in the film adaptation).
Grisham’s second book, which he was working on while hand-selling his debut, made the young lawyer an “overnight success” — after years of work. And rightly so: The Firm is one of the rare legal thrillers that rewards rereading.
There’s something timeless about the idea of something being too good to be true (an impressive job offer from a boutique law firm) and of a main character struggling to free himself from a trap he walked into willingly while trying to maintain his own ethics and honour (in this case, idealist lawyer Mitch McDeere). The film version, starring Tom Cruise, was the icing on the cake, as the novel had already sold more than a million copies.
The Runaway Jury
This is Grisham’s storytelling at its finest, full of twists and turns and so suspenseful the New York Times called it “a lengthening cigarette ash that refuses to drop off.
It’s not just the cat-and-mouse game between Rankin Fitch (a scheming jury consultant who can deliver whatever verdict his deep-pocket clients need) and Nicholas Easter (the deceptively normal guy who threatens to steal a jury from Fitch’s control) that continues to have readers transfixed. The fact that the case at the centre of the novel is a lawsuit against big tobacco provides a timely and moral imperative to The Runaway Jury (notably the film version, starring Gene Hackman and John Cusack, changes the Big Bad to the gun industry, another corporate villain that’s easy to cheer against).
The Innocent Man
With his first non-fiction book, Grisham trains his narrative skills on the story of Ron Williamson, a washed-up small town hero (who failed to make it in big league baseball) sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. While a true story, it reads like one of Grisham’s novels, with plot twists and reversals, revelations and deceptions, which are all the more troubling because they actually happened.
“There are thousands of innocent people in prison serving long sentences for crimes committed by others; that their convictions could have been avoided and the real perpetrators brought to justice; that many segments of our criminal justice system are broken and must be fixed,” Grisham once said in an interview about the book with The Innocent Project. The author also serves as a commentator in the Netflix adaptation of the book, which brings the troubling story up to date.
This departure from the courtroom finds Grisham tackling the drama to be found on the football field. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the sport in many American communities and the effect that playing — or not — can have on someone’s life. Bleachers begins with hundreds of former players returning to their school for the funeral of their former coach, Eddie Rake. In the stadium stands, the former players talk of past glories, heartaches, triumphs and injuries, trying to determine just how they feel about the man who shaped their lives for better or for worse. What saves the story from melodrama, according to the New York Times, is Grisham’s refusal to offer pat resolutions and that he is “a sure-footed storyteller with an undeniable mastery of plotting, pacing and tone.”
Another complete departure for Grisham, Skipping Christmas is a hilarious and ultimately touching story. (People familiar with the zany holiday movie Christmas With the Kranks, starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis, might be surprised it was penned by the same author who wrote all those legal thrillers.) The book follows Luther and Nora Krank as they decide to — just once — bow out of the whole Christmas ordeal. No lights, no tree, no big meal. Instead, they’re going on a cruise. Of course, nothing goes to plan, and the result is a Christmas, it’s safe to say, like no other.
For those hoping for a new Grisham legal drama, his new novel (to be published in April) actually plays out on the basketball court. But the stakes are still high.
The book follows young Sudanese basketball player Samuel Sooleymon, who visits the United States with his team for an exhibition basketball tournament. While they’re in the U.S., Sooley receives word that his village has been destroyed in the revolution, his father killed and his family lost. Unable to go home, Sooley is given a charitable university scholarship and uses skills and determination, on the court and off, to do the best for his adopted home and to try to save his family.