A Jury of One's Peers Goes Up in Smoke

The Runaway Jury

By John Grisham

Doubleday, 401 pp., $26.95

John Grisham's latest legal thriller, "The Runaway Jury," has it all: mystery, legal maneuvering, behind-the-scenes views of a trial, jury tampering, and plenty of other skullduggery.

Taking a page from today's headlines, Grisham takes us to Biloxi, on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, and the latest tobacco trial. The combatants/conspirators/protagonists are many, but most of the action centers around two men, Rankin Fitch and Nicholas Easter.

Fitch runs the tobacco companies' secret legal fund. He's a bully who hires the lawyers, jury consultants, and investigators, and who fixes the juries. His clients are scared silly of him, but they put up with him because Big Tobacco hasn't lost a case since he's been in charge.

The stakes are tremendous for plaintiff and defendant alike. If the jury finds that cigarette smoking killed Jacob Wood, and that he couldn't quit because the tobacco companies got him hooked as a child and then spiked their cigarettes with more nicotine to keep him hooked, the coalition of trial lawyers financing the case expects to cash in big in future lawsuits. The tobacco companies need to head that off. Both sides are ready to play hardball - complete with spitballs and beanballs.

This is no civics-textbook trial. As the action unfolds, both sides are trying to fix the jury, but that panel seems to have a mind of its own. Before long it's going on strike and dictating terms to the judge. It's a runaway jury.

As usual, Grisham draws a finely detailed, realistic picture of the action and the characters. The judge, the lawyers on both sides, the witnesses, even the court officers are painted as real human beings with real foibles. And true to Grisham's style, just when you think you know the ending, you suddenly find out that you don't.

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