Mysteries & Adventures

Topical Legal Thriller Spins an Intriguing But Improbable Tale

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THE CLIENT By John Grisham, Doubleday, 422 pp., $23.50

JOHN GRISHAM is on a roll: He's had three No. 1 bestsellers in the two years since "The Firm" was published. His latest legal thriller, "The Client," contains all the ingredients of a fourth consecutive winner.

The plot revolves around an unlikely hero: Mark Sway, an 11-year-old Memphis, Tenn., boy who, with his younger brother, witnesses the suicide of New Orleans lawyer Jerome Clifford. Mark and his brother are living with their young mother in a trailer park after her divorce from a husband who abused them all. This and the social frictions at school between the trailer-park kids and those from "better" homes are supposed to have made Mark "street wise" and mature beyond his years.

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When Mark tries to intervene to keep Clifford from killing himself, he is captured by the suicidal lawyer, who decides they'll go together. In the process, he lets Mark in on a big secret: He is a lawyer for Mafioso Barry Muldanno, the murderer of a United States senator from Louisiana. Clifford tells Mark the FBI hasn't been able to locate the body, which Muldanno, in an unguarded moment, has let slip is currently located under the lawyer's garage floor.

Mark escapes from Clifford just before the suicide, which leaves him the only person beside Muldanno who knows the secret that can sew up the case. Soon the Memphis authorities, the US attorney in New Orleans, and the mob figure out that Mark probably knows something. The authorities want him to tell what he knows, but Mark has seen too many crime movies, and he's convinced that he's dead if he does.

With his brother lying in the hospital with traumatic stress syndrome from witnessing the suicide, and his mother spending every minute at the bedside, Mark decides he needs a lawyer. Fortunately for him, he stumbles on Reggie Love, a self-made woman with a sad past who just happens to specialize in child-abuse and neglect cases. Together she and Mark modestly set out to outwit the system, the cops, and the mob.

The problem with this kind of thriller is the frequent implausibility of the plot. But if you can accept the premise of "The Client," especially Mark's reasons for refusing to talk and a lawyer who takes him seriously, you're in for a great read.

The novel throws a spotlight on the treatment of juveniles by a system that, in trying to assist them, often does more harm than good. The characters live in a messy world featuring the usual mobsters with no respect for life; sleazy prosecutors and hangers-on who see their jobs as mere stepping-stones to higher office; jurisdictional spats between federal and state authorities; and a veteran police reporter whose articles endanger Mark and land the reporter in jail for contempt of court.

But even if the good guys aren't always all that good, most of them are trying to do the right thing. This is not a novel of hopelessness: While there are ambiguities in the ending, there are many small acts of goodness along the way. A hero who emerges in the latter part of the book is Harry Roosevelt, a black juvenile-court judge who could have gone on to a more lofty position but declined to, and who really does try to find a solution that will place Mark and his family in the least danger.

If you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept an 11-year-old leading the adult world around by the nose for 422 pages, the rewards in "The Client" are worth it. Take it along with you to the beach this summer.

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