Replace a sports agent facing a crisis of conscience with a lawyer facing a crisis of conscience and you have the foundation for the latest legal thriller to come off the Grisham assembly line. It is his 24th novel, to go along with a short-story collection and a recent series of children’s mysteries.
David Zinc is 31 years old, earning $300,000 per year at a powerful Chicago firm while handling lucrative but mind-numbing corporate work. Exhausted by his relentless pace – a pace that leaves him nodding off during the few hours he spends with his wife before returning to work – Zinc snaps one morning after arriving at his office on the 93rd floor of a downtown skyscraper.
Before the elevator door closes, he jumps back on and flees the building.
“When the elevator began its descent, David Zinc started to laugh,” Grisham writes. “The spinning and nausea were gone. The pressure on his chest vanished. He was doing it! He was leaving the sweatshop of Rogan Rothberg and saying farewell to a nightmare.”
With that, Grisham sends Zinc on a bender and, eventually, into the arms of an obscure firm comprised of a secretary and two ambulance-chasing principals. Of the firm, Finley & Figg, the author provides the following thumbnail sketch: “It was selective only because no one wanted to work there, including the two men who owned it.”
Grisham has sold zillions of books in the past 20 years taking a dim view of those who practice and interpret the law, hooking readers with behind-the-scenes glimpses of judges, juries, and lawyers while offering plenty of testimony detailing the injustices of the legal system. Typically, his characters are less than memorable, as is their dialogue, but the ruthless quandaries Grisham concocts usually make for fun reading.
Not so with "The Litigators," which suffers from the greatest of best-seller sins: it fails to entertain on a consistent basis. In fact, it fails to entertain much at all.
A quixotic odyssey leads Zinc to an improbable alliance with Finley & Figg, setting up the lawsuit that dominates the novel. It involves a fictional cholesterol drug called Krayoxx.
Grisham spends many pages explaining the flimsiness of the tort case to be mounted against Krayoxx’s parent company and then covers the same ground with a blow-by-blow courtroom account. Unlike so many of his other novels, the main case in "The Litigators" offers few twists and turns either in its interpretation of the law, the circumstances surrounding the principals or anything else.
Instead, Grisham summarizes how such a case might work, particularly if the plaintiff and her attorneys were hopelessly erratic.
Most of the machinations come off as either stereotypical or too glib by half, such as a Russian doctor who makes a healthy living as an expert witness without ever practicing medicine.
Finley and Figg, too, are from central legal casting: miserable, divorced, and devoid of honor in their practice. Grisham knows the legal world as well as anyone, but settles for caricature.
Characters with flaws are all but mandatory to convey the verisimilitude of real people, to be sure, but without contradictions they lack humanity and become predictable. Too many of the people in "The Litigators," from the South Florida tort lawyer to the DC lobbyist, do anything other than what the reader expects.
Several of Grisham’s recent books, from "The Appeal" to "The Confession," put fresh spins on familiar legal terrain, but "The Litigators" fails to follow suit.
Erik Spanberg is a frequent reviewer for the Monitor's Books section.