Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- John Grisham loves an underdog. In “The Litigators,” his 25th novel, he puts the emphasis on dog.
The law firm of Finley & Figg is an unlovable mutt. The case its partners hope will vault them to the big time is flea-ridden. There’s even a canine on the premises: a worthless watchdog named AC (short for Ambulance Chaser).
Oscar Finley and Wally Figg prefer to call their outfit a “boutique firm,” which fails to dress up the squalid nature of their practice. (The office is conveniently located within siren-hearing distance of one of Chicago’s most dangerous intersections.)
Oscar is actually the Felix Unger of this odd couple -- his fussiness and air of general dignity are the armor protecting him from his cold fish of a wife and childish junior partner. Wally, whose suits are as rumpled as his ethics, dreams of nothing more than seeing his face on park benches, billboards and -- Oh Valhalla! -- late-night TV ads promising quick and lucrative justice for your tragedies.
Into this sorrowful kennel stumbles David Zinc, a Harvard-educated corporate lawyer fresh from the world’s speediest mid-life crisis. Gloriously drunk and feeling anything would be an improvement over his stultifying career in a glass-and-steel tower downtown, David signs on as Finley & Figg’s newest (and only) associate.
For David, whose legal expertise involves long-term bond issues, it’s certainly a change of pace: Day one on the job finds him forging signatures on legal documents, pulling a gun on a dissatisfied client’s fiancee and watching Wally barter overdue legal fees for sex.
Soon after David’s appearance on their doorstep, Wally finds what he thinks is his golden ticket -- a chance to latch onto a class-action suit seeking billions from Varrick Labs for the supposed ill-effects of a cholesterol wonder drug. Small-fish Wally, of course, never stands a chance when he tries to feed with the sharks.
Readers are more fortunate, as Grisham gives an amusing and appalling look into the machinations of a nationwide class-action suit. At a strategy session in Las Vegas, a bevy of plaintiffs’ lawyers are informed that the potential pool of injured or dead from the drug could be as high as half a million: “This news -- of so much misery and suffering -- was well received around the table.”
In the end, the case strains Oscar’s heart and Wally’s sobriety to their breaking points. Poor David, who hasn’t seen the inside of a courtroom since law school, finds himself in front of a cranky federal judge, supported only by a handful of quacks on heavy retainer, taking on a phalanx of hotshots from his old firm.
Well, since he’s going down in flames, he decides to enjoy the ride -- putting Varrick on trial for its history of using third-world subjects as guinea pigs for new drugs.
While Grisham’s legal thrillers have always had their share of humor, “The Litigators” veers heavily toward sitcom, and a sentimental one at that. This will disappoint anyone seeking the taut suspense of “The Firm.” The book also suffers from Grisham’s usual lack of attention to secondary characters -- in this case, the firm’s sassy secretary, a slick-haired mass-tort king and the sexy legal assassin leading the Varrick defense.
These are quibbles, however. When you get past the 275 million books sold, the big-budget film treatments, the good looks on display in the author photo and all the other elements of Grisham Inc., the fact remains that John Grisham is simply very good at what he does. “The Litigators” may not be best in show, but it displays plenty of good breeding.
“The Litigators” is published by Doubleday (385 pages, $28.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Tobin Harshaw is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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