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'Gray Mountain' is a satisfying, old-fashioned legal thriller

'Mountain' is the newest book by John Grisham that can make a weekend disappear.

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    Gray Mountain
    By John Grisham
    Knopf Doubleday
    384 pp.
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What began with “A Time to Kill” in the late 1980s has become an annual rite for John Grisham: each new novel signals a time for him to make yet another killing. At this point, Grisham could collect text messages, slap his name on the jacket, and take the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list.

So we should be grateful that Grisham still shows some interest in putting together stories that are topical and move at a swift pace. Some are better than others, but more often than not, he keeps the pages turning.

Which brings us to “Gray Mountain.” Or, rather, brings Samantha Kofer to Gray Mountain.

Ms. Kofer, a young lawyer with a promising but uninspiring big-firm job in Manhattan, falls prey to the Great Recession as the novel begins. It’s 2008 and she has been furloughed. Her firm, specializing in commercial real estate, offers to keep some of the affected lawyers under contract for a year. The agreement provides health benefits but no pay provided the furloughed lawyer works as an intern for a non-profit. In return, the furloughed lawyers receive health benefits and a chance to win back their full-time jobs in a year.

Neither Samantha nor her co-workers are excited by this less-than-generous offer. She has little in the way of prospects and, with that, Grisham has his novel in motion. Samantha winds up in rural Virginia as an intern at a small-town legal aid clinic.

Grisham being Grisham, the idyllic setting soon proves anything but. Samantha discovers a town and region besieged by Big Coal companies and their cutthroat, high-priced lawyers. Underdogs such as Samantha and a rebellious local counselor, Donovan Gray, give the novel a convenient vehicle for Grisham to detail the horrors of mountaintop coal mining, black lung disease, and corporate lawyers buying off judges.

Nuance is in short supply because nuance is limited in the real-life version of such battles. Grisham finds little cause for optimism in the fight to save Appalachia from environmental degradation. The best hope, the author seems to argue, is for the little guys to score an occasional victory in court to slow down the bad guys.

All of which sounds like a newspaper editorial. Grisham is in the entertainment business, of course, so the spinach of coal-mining damage and policies is sprinkled into a caper that includes stolen, incriminating documents, disguises, secret caves, private planes, and enough double-dealing and whispering to make the residents of Peyton Place blush.

Samantha is an interesting protagonist. Her parents are divorced and live in Washington D.C., where her mother works in the upper level of the Justice Department and her father, a disbarred trial lawyer who grew wealthy suing airlines, now matches cases and investors to fund major liability lawsuits.

And while Grisham made his name writing about small-town Mississippi cases, he knows the suffocating effects a rural setting can have, a notion he spells out in his new novel.

Samantha’s move to Brady, Va., with a population of 2,200, wears on her. She misses the New York nightlife, good mixed drinks, thin-crust pizza, the entertainment options of a big city.

Gradually, though, being an actual lawyer – in the courtroom, arguing in front of judges and juries – gives Samantha a new calling. In New York, her job consisted of reviewing contracts and financing agreements but nothing in court.

As she tells her new boss in Virginia, “I didn’t like the work, didn’t like most of the people in the firm, and certainly didn’t like the clients. Sadly, most of the lawyers I know feel the same way.”

In Virginia, Samantha works for free, disentangling the poor and working poor from garnished wages, abusive husbands and other knotty problems. She also finds herself threatened and intimidated by coal companies and their lawyers.

After that, things really start to get complicated. As in people dying suddenly and mysteriously. Grisham sets his players in motion, chapters breeze by, and, before you know it, a weekend has disappeared.

With “Gray Mountain,” John Grisham makes a powerful closing argument against Big Coal, but the message never obscures a satisfying, old fashioned, good guy-bad guy legal thriller.

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