Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Reviews: John Grisham's The Firm and Theodore Boone: The Activist

Q: How many lawyers does it take to roof a house?
A: It depends on how thin you slice them.

OK, that was was mean. I won't tell the second one.

Having just finished two John Grisham audiobooks I have lawyers on my mind. The first was an abridged version of The Firm, the legal thriller that put Grisham on the map and his name in lights. The suspense is diminished when you know the ending, but it's still a good read.

In the same way that Erle Stanley Gardner knew courtrooms, John Grisham understands the legal profession. When he wrote his first novel, A Time To Kill, he was working 60-70 hours a week in a Mississippi law firm. After his next novel became a blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise he could spend the rest of his life doing what he really wanted to do, which was to be a writer. That's a pretty good deal for a fellow in his thirties.

The Firm tells the story of Mitch McDeere, a bright, ambitious young lawyer who has the good fortune of landing a position in an Alabama law firm where no one has ever left and everyone retires rich. At least that's the surface story. The reality is, occasionally a few members in the firm have failed to become partners and failed to actually retire. Their accidental deaths are mourned, and their memories honored with portraits in the boardroom.

As Mitch soon learns, his firm's primary client is a Chicago mob family and one of their services is to help move their revenue into off-shore banks to reduce taxes, among other things. How Mitch manages to survive long enough to assemble evidence necessary to help the FBI indict the entire law firm is the heart of the story.

The only scene I really remember from the movie is Tom Cruise turning the music up loud so that he can tell his wife what's going on without being heard by the bad guys who have bugged his home. Though I recall enjoying it the film didn't make a lasting impression, perhaps because the story seemed so over-the-top.

The audio version of this book is abridged, so it feels plot heavy. On the flip side, I am not sure I'd want to digress overmuch in a story about lawyers. It just feels tedious.

Theodore Boone: The Activist is actually in the young adult category with junior high aged readers as its target. It's part of a series of books featuring Theo Boone, a 13-year-old whose parents are lawyers. Following the advice one gets in most writer's conferences, Grisham writes about what he knows. Like the Hardy Boys, the books feature our young hero in a range of adventures, using his wits and legal knowledge on behalf of truth, justice and the American way.

Actually, the book is almost a tutorial on a facet of law which I've never seen addressed in a book before, the concept of eminent domain.

Theo's home life includes family meals together in which issues come up because they get seven to nine newspapers Theo is such an inquisitive kid. His father leans conservative and his mother leans liberal so they do not always agree in the issues but they are respectful in the way they dialogue about it all.

The central matter in this book is the building of a highway bypass to relieve congestion in their town. Theo gets involved because one of his best friends is going to lose the family farm to the developers due to eminent domain. He understands that government has the right to take people's property in this way if there is a good reason, but in this case there have been back room deals which from which certain parties will profit if this deal goes through.

As I was listening to the first chapter about Theo on the debate team I expected this to be a background story about his development toward becoming a major activist. I did not realize that this was a setup for a story about a 13 year old kid who is a boy scout and a legal eagle.

Like The Firm, it's well written, informative and driven once again by the plot, chiefly due to being an abridgement. There are some interesting characters who likely appear in other books in this series, most prominently Uncle Ike who used to be with he parents' firm of Boone and Boone before something happened and he was disbarred. Ike helps guide Theo with yet another perspective on matters legal, political and otherwise.

The book is Theodore Boone: The Activist.

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