Fiction - Southern comfort

The Last Juror

John Grisham <em>Century, 355pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 1844131610

The Grisham money machine shows no sign of slowing down. His latest novel has a print run of 2.8 million copies, and will no doubt add handsomely to the profits of both the Random House Group and Grisham himself. Sadly, it is a book without plot, purpose or even any pleasure for the reader, simply page after page of deep-fried Southern cliche.

Despite their clumsy plots, paper-thin characters and shocking grammar, many of Grisham's earlier books were both startlingly readable and surprisingly effective morality tales. Novels such as The Chamber and The Runaway Jury were unafraid to condemn some of the worst ills of American life, whether the death penalty or the greed of the tobacco industry. Usually selling more than Stephen King and Tom Clancy combined, Grisham managed to avoid most of King's hokiness and all of Clancy's fetishism of the technology of death. Grisham's huge sales (he sold more than 60 million books in the 1990s) seemed reason for celebration, not condemnation, testifying as they did to a deep vein of liberalism in mainstream America.

In recent books, however, Grisham has become both more ambitious and less accomplished. In A Painted House, Bleachers and The Summons, he returned to the South of his youth for a series of homecoming and coming-of-age tales, but without providing any reason why we should follow him there. The Last Juror, like The Summons and Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill, is set in the fictional town of Clanton, Ford County, Mississippi. It opens in 1970, when J Willie Traynor, a 23-year-old journalism school drop-out with a rich grandmother and a Triumph Spitfire, buys the local Ford County Times. Almost immediately, a young widow is raped and murdered in front of her children, and dies whispering the words, "It was Danny Padgitt."

Padgitt, scion of the local organised crime family, is arrested shortly afterwards wearing a shirt soaked with the victim's blood. Despite his wily lawyer and a bribed witness whose false testimony is amusingly demolished, Padgitt is convicted easily. He evades the death penalty and is sentenced to life imprisonment in Mississippi's notorious Parchman jail.

The book's dramatic tension rests on Padgitt's threat to the jury, that if they convict him "I'll get every damned one of you", and on the fact that "life" in Mississippi can be as short as ten years. We know he will surely return to wreak his bloody vengeance, but unfortunately there is still two-thirds of the book to get through. The next 200 pages revolve around Willie's deepening relationship with the last juror chosen for the trial, Miss Callie Ruffin, an absurdly angelic, elderly black woman who serves up greasy lunches and home-spun wisdom for page after page.

Miss Callie is clearly intended to make some sort of statement about the plight of Southern blacks, but what she represents is unclear. Willie himself seems more interested in boosting his paper's circulation figures and trying to prevent the opening of a Bargain City (read Wal-Mart) superstore on the edge of town than in addressing the heritage of slavery or problems of racial discrimination, and the novel ambles along for nine years until Padgitt's release.

Given Grisham's social evangelism in earlier books, this failure to address the issue of race is glaring. Instead, we are treated to a parade of formulaic characters with names like Wobble Tackett and Hank Hooten, who swill moonshine in honky-tonks, chew on "hog guts", and go hunting with automatic weapons. National issues - civil rights and Vietnam, for instance - flit across the town's consciousness but make no discernible impact. Readers will find themselves longing for the promised nemesis of Padgitt's revenge, in the hope that it might dispense with many of the town's dull and irritating characters. Sadly, even that satisfaction is denied.

Small-town Mississippi has been the setting for so many great American novels, from Faulkner's Light in August to Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, that a book of this kind is bound to suffer by comparison. A plot, or a hard look at the racial divisions that make Mississippi the poorest and most unequal state in America, might have compensated for Grisham's lack of literary skill. Without either of these we are left with nothing.