The first legal thriller I ever read was A Time To Kill and I’ve been a fan of the genre ever since. There are many talented authors within the genre: Michael Connelly, Brad Meltzer, Sheldon Siegel to name a few, but I’ve always felt there were few who compared to John Grisham.
His latest offering is titled, Gray Mountain. Set among the small towns of Appalachia, it’s a story about strip mining and the poisonous devastation and ecological ruin it has on the workers, the land, and the local residents. ‘Appalachia’ usually conjures up visions of the typical moonshining and clan fighting culture of so many books and movies from years gone by, but if that’s what you’re expecting you’ll be disappointed. Gray Mountain focuses on modern day issues, although Grisham relies on many of the overused and unflattering, stereotypical descriptions when referring to the locals of Brady.
He skillfully sets up a number of issues (or cases) and presents research in bulk (although I’m not convinced his research on guns was completely accurate), but there is no resolution on the bigger issues. Granted, he can’t wrap up the effects, lawsuits, or ravages of strip mining within the pages of a work of fiction, but I’m referring to the threads he created. The book had an incomplete feel to it.
The second act was long, and at times a bit daunting, as he set up each case and placed the characters in the right place with the right skills. But when it all should have come together, rather than take great pains to ensure a plausible, satisfying ending, he hurried through leaving too many unanswered questions and a bitter taste for the read.
I’ve heard others say ‘sequel’. Maybe there will be (that might answer many of the unresolved issues), but that doesn’t change the fact that this one left me feeling unsatisfied and a little miffed. One of the initial main characters (and one of my favorite) dies in a plane crash. His rogue brother believes he was murdered. Granted, taking Donovan’s line of work into consideration, along with what we know about some of his less-than-ethical dealings, we are not shocked by this and have no reason to disagree with his brother. But… ‘whodunit’? I would think that with all of his successes in the legal thriller genre, Mr. Grisham would know that if you kill off a favorite among the readers, you have to validate that killing with answers, more specifically the why and the who. We know the why, but not the who. I suppose he left it for us to guess, but with so many enemies, it’s a big pool to draw from and that’s only if it was indeed murder. That fact was never proven.
There were several deaths over the course of the book. Mr. Grisham is not afraid to kill and I commend him for that. Many writers can’t bring themselves to do it for fear of alienating the reader. Aside from Donovan, who I mentioned in the previous paragraph, there was Buddy Ryzer, a late stage black lung victim. The validation in his case was the fact that after all avenues to a settlement had been exhausted, at least what he would see in his lifetime, he knew he was worth more dead than alive to his family (life insurance) and sacrificed what little time he had left for what he felt was their benefit.
The death of the Tate boys. Even in fiction, it’s sad when a child dies. But, that was relevant and necessary in order to show Donovan’s aggressive and reckless nature, his hatred toward the coal companies, and why so many hated him.
Gray Mountain is unlike many of Grisham’s other books for several reasons, but the most obvious reason to me was the fact that the plot bounced out of control at times. Unlike A Time To Kill, where the story is tight without random threads or loose ends, this book jumped back and forth, often without any real reason.
Another difference was the characters. Some I cared about and others weren’t interesting enough to hold my attention. Sadly, the main character, Samantha, was one of the least interesting or likable of the entire cast, although there were many that were just as undeveloped.
Aside from a few issues I would have liked to have seen resolved, Gray Mountain was an enjoyable read, but it wasn’t quintessential Grisham. You’ll walk away knowing more about strip mining and its devastation than you’ve probably ever wanted to know, you won’t fall in love with any of the characters and you won’t witness any grand scale courtroom battle so reminiscent to a Grisham novel. In other words, you won’t love it.
But you won’t hate it either.