Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Book Review - "The Confession" by John Grisham
There are a couple of confessions in play. Nine years ago, Donte Drumm was coerced into a confession by a cop just doing his job. By answering leading questions, he confessed that he kidnapped, raped, and murdered a high school classmate named Nicole. Oh yeah, Donte is black and the victim was white.
The book opens with another confession. Travis Boyette walks into Reverend Keith Schroeder's office and after some beating around the bush, admits that he actually killed Nicole. He's feeling guilty because Donte's execution is days away and because he himself is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor that could kill him in a matter of weeks. Therefore, he has little to lose by going public since he probably won't be alive by the time the wheels of justice turn in his direction. In light of this startling information, what can Keith do to make sure Texas doesn't execute the wrong man?
On the face, this is a compelling story. There's the race against time: Keith and Boyette are in Kansas, about a twelve-hour drive from the town in Texas where Donte is from. Can the two of them get there in time, and can they then convince anyone that Boyette is really Nicole's murderer? Can Donte's lawyer Robbie Flak file his petitions in time to stop the execution? There's the decisions that Keith must constantly make in determining just how far he will go to help Boyette, a convicted sex offender in four states. There's the possibility of race riots in Donte's town if the execution goes through. Grisham knows how to build suspense and keep the reader engaged. However, his storytelling ability seems to have gotten lost.
Grisham has concocted a dilemma for his characters which will keep the reader interested, but he relies on telling the story and not showing it. We get a lot of up-front descriptions of characters instead of dropping details as the story unfolds. He puts in some details that bring his locations to life but not as many as in his first books. Reading The Confession feels a bit like he made things up as he went and didn't spend much time planning how to craft his tale. He's also heavy-handed on the anti-death penalty idea. Authors writing out of their own beliefs is nothing new, but this time the author beats his readers over the head.
About halfway through I was moved to get out my paperback copy of A Time to Kill, Grisham's first novel and one of my all-time favorites. I've felt for a while now that he's lost his touch in his quest to churn out as many books as possible, and I wanted to know if his early ones were as good as I remembered. I'm only chapters in, but already the quality of writing is different. Sure, A Time to Kill is a bit rough (even now Grisham has a rather jarring tendency to abruptly shift viewpoints, something a good editor should be able to point out), but the time he spent in shaping his story is evident. We get background information when necessary, details are doled out through the action and narrative, and it feels like he planned his story in advance. By contrast, The Confession seems slapped together like maybe Grisham was hoping the high suspense would keep the reader from noticing the lack of a good yarn.
Grisham fans wanting to read a story akin to the early ones that made them fall in love with the author will be disappointed. His previous book, The Associate, had been heading in the right direction, but with this latest one he has gone off track again. Let's hope he finds his way before writing whatever comes next.