Make Partner Or Die

THE FIRM By John Grisham Doubleday -- 421pp -- $19.95

At the start of John Grisham's shrewd novel The Firm, Mitchell Y. McDeere graduates at the top of his class at Harvard Law, then trades in his good grades for big bucks: a base salary of $80,000 the first year, plus bonuses. Eighty-five the second year, plus bonuses. A low-interest mortgage on a proper address. Two country club memberships. And--what else?--a new BMW. McDeere picks black.

Even for a Harvard Law grad, the deal seems too good to be true. It is. And the catch isn't just that McDeere's new employer is based in sleepy Memphis. As McDeere gradually discovers, the firm is run by the mob. At Bendini, Lambert & Locke, associates either make partner or die young, in bizarre car wrecks or boating accidents in the Caribbean. They know too much.

The Firm is being promoted as a cross between L. A. Law and The Godfather, and in many ways it lives up to the billing. There's enough glamour, sex appeal, and suspense to keep the pages turning. There are also enough flaws--inconsistent descriptions and clunky dialogue--to keep the characters from being fully believable. And Grisham, a criminal defense attorney in Mississippi, paints a rather one-dimensional and exaggeratedly ugly picture of attorneys as ruthlessly obsessed with wealth. McDeere, for instance, tells an FBI agent who tries to recruit him as an informant: "You boys like to brag about spending billions fighting organized crime, so I say throw a little my way. I want a million now and a million later."

Despite these imperfections, Grisham nailed down a six-figure movie deal even before he found a publisher. It's easy to see why Hollywood jumped. The crisply written narrative is full of cinematic twists and pacing, even a dramatic multistate chase. Chances are, you'll be up till all hours following McDeere and his gorgeous young wife as they unravel the firm's secret and plot their escape.

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