Legal Thriller Excels In Plot and Character

THE RAINMAKER

By John Grisham

Doubleday,

434 pp., $25.95

THIS is the third John Grish-am legal thriller I've reviewed, and I have to confess: I've liked every one of them.

So, apparently, have millions of other readers, since his books, including the latest, ''The Rainmaker,'' continually shoot up the bestseller lists.

It's no mystery why this should be so. Grisham's characters have depth and complexity and feel like real people. His stories are embroidered with interesting subplots that complement, but don't interfere with, the main event. And they take place in middle America - in Grisham's world, represented by Memphis - rather than in the same old milieu of New York or Los Angeles. People can relate to them.

In addition, Grisham opens up for most of his readers a world that mystifies, intimidates, and sometimes horrifies them: the law, lawyers, and the courts.

''The Rainmaker'' is a worthy heir to this tradition. The tale, told in the first-person present, revolves around Rudy Baylor, a graduating law student at mythical Memphis State University. Consulting with some elderly folks at a senior-citizens center as part of a course, he stumbles onto his first clients.

One is Miss Birdie, a lonely widow who wants to cut her ingrate relatives out of her multimillion-dollar will. The others are Dot and Buddy Black, whose son, Donny Ray, has been diagnosed with acute leukemia. He is dying because the family's insurance company has inexplicably refused to pay for a bone-marrow transplant that is clearly covered by their health-insurance policy. Compounding the injustice is that Donny Ray has a twin brother who doctors say would be a perfect donor.

The plot follows Rudy as he wrangles with Miss Birdie, who can't make up her mind about her new will, and as he files a $10 million lawsuit against the insurance company for Dot and Buddy. He soon finds himself pitted in the courtroom against the same tony firm that cost him a job he had wanted but didn't get.

Then, sitting in a hospital cafeteria looking for potential personal-injury clients, he meets Kelly Riker, a young teenager whose husband has taken to coming home drunk and beating her with a baseball bat.

Understandably, medical descriptions and procedures figure in the novel, but are not overwhelming. The action includes a burst of violence. Readers are warned that Grisham's ending involves more plot twists than an Agatha Christie novel.

As always, Grisham has a lot to say about the way things really work in this country, especially the legal system. Whereas he has previously written about criminal justice, in ''The Rainmaker'' he's talking about civil law. If you're an advocate of tort reform, don't look for an ally in Grisham: He's dedicated this novel to ''American trial lawyers.''

That's not to say lawyers come out smelling like a rose; often they just smell. Some of the machinations in the book sound too incredible not to be real. At the same time, however, Grisham highlights the work done by dedicated professionals, like them or not, for ''the rights of consumers and the little guy.''

In a short preface, Grisham says he was helped by Will Denton, a prominent trial lawyer in Gulfport, Miss., who he says is such a professional. ''When I was a trial lawyer, I wanted to be like Will Denton,'' he writes.

Grisham sold 15 percent of all the books in the United States the week ending April 17, according to Publisher's Weekly. Doubleday ran a first printing of 2.8 million copies of ''The Rainmaker,'' probably a record for a hardcover. To date, Grisham's books have a combined in-print total of 50 million copies, the magazine reports.

I'm a professional writer. I want to be like John Grisham.

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