In The Confession, his latest novel, John Grisham poses a simple but irresistible question: If an innocent man is convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, what happens to the guilty one who remains free?
“The Confession,” Grisham’s new legal thriller, asks that question, but with a pulse-pounding twist – the man who got away with the abduction and killing of a high-school cheerleader in Texas now wants to tell the truth. Travis Boyette, out on parole in Kansas after serving time for other, unrelated crimes, stumbles into a Lutheran church in Topeka and decides to bare his soul to the young minister.
The catch (there’s always a catch with Grisham) – Boyette wants to come clean because the young man who wound up accused and wrongfully convicted is four days from execution in Texas.
Grisham has made advocacy for researching and reversing wrongful convictions his primary cause when he isn’t churning out bestsellers. So he knows the territory, and makes good use of the systemic and political pressures that often serve to worsen these dreadful decisions. But all of that sounds detached and sociological. What Grisham does in his novels, above all else, is entertain.
So it is with “The Confession,” despite some of his habitual foibles. Expository dialogue getting in the way from time to time? Check. Little in the way of nuance? Guilty again. And most of the characters are pretty stock.
Most of the time, all of these are easy to ignore because the story chugs ahead on its basic but tantalizing premise: How can you stop the execution of an innocent man? Boyette is 44 years old but hobbles along with a cane, suffers from seizure headaches and may have just days or months to live because of a brain tumor. It is for this reason – he’ll die soon anyway – that he asks Keith Schroeder, the Lutheran minister, to drive him to Texas and help stop the execution.
This is illegal, of course, since Boyette is forbidden from leaving Kansas. Schroeder is in over his head and knows it. Yet he can’t resist the chance to save Donté Drumm, the high school football star who has spent nine years in prison after police and prosecutors forced a false confession from him.
Donté is a few days from lethal injection in Texas, a state known for its embrace of the death penalty. Only his fierce but outmanned attorney, Robbie Flak, can keep him alive if – and only if – one of his long-shot appeals gain favor.
Last-minute appeals rarely succeed, making lawyers, prosecutors, and justices alike wary of crackpots who might step forward to get some attention. This, of course, could describe Travis Boyette, which is why even Donté’s lawyer wants no part of a Kansas minister and a known sex offender showing up on his doorstep.
Once Grisham sets the story in motion, he finds nooks and crannies in the narrative to relay the ugliness of the death penalty and its machinery in stark terms. To be sure, this is not a novel that equivocates on its central theme, as Grisham makes his disdain clear from the outset.
Along the way, Grisham ignites small-town racial tensions – Donté is black and the cheerleader who died was white – while skewering politicians, prosecutors, and ratings-hungry media hordes, among others.
Most chilling is his depiction of a justice system determined to reap eye-for-an-eye vengeance no matter how flimsy the case. Donté’s confession, induced by a litany of illegal coercion tactics, occurs at the same time Boyette is in custody on another charge in the same jail. The real killer can only laugh after his release as he watches the police and prosecutors publicize their air-tight investigation.
Much to the apparent relief of anyone stuck in an airport terminal or a waiting room, Grisham needs little time to get a story up and running. In “The Confession,” he includes a pair of satisfying plot turns, but sacrifices some momentum later in the book by tying up too many loose threads.
All in all, the book accomplishes what Grisham says is his main goal: writing popular fiction that keeps readers turning pages long after bedtime.
Let this reader’s confession serve as Exhibit A: I should, no doubt, be spending more time with the classics, but Grisham’s entertaining novels are a hard habit to break.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.