The Client | Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Client.
This section contains 1,018 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

SOURCE: "How Do You Fight the Mob? Get a Lawyer," The New York Times, March 5, 1993, p. C29.

Lehmann-Haupt is a prominent American critic. In the following review, he faults Grisham for frustrating readers with likeable characters and an undeveloped, implausible, but gripping plot, advising the reader to "settle into The Client for the captivating read it promises. Just don't look for any surprises. What you expect is more than what you get."

The opening of John Grisham's latest legal thriller, The Client, is irresistible. Eleven-year-old Mark Sway is leading his 8-year-old brother, Ricky, into the woods near their trailer-park home in Memphis, Tenn., to give him his first cigarette. While the boys are lighting up behind some bushes, a long, black, shiny Lincoln comes rolling up a dirt road close by and pulls to a stop. A chubby man in a black suit climbs out, removes a water hose from the trunk, attaches one end to the exhaust pipe, slides the other end through the partly open left rear window, climbs back into the car and starts the engine.

Little Ricky wants to run home, but Mark, being older and more streetwise, knows what he must do. He crawls to the rear of the car, removes the hose from the exhaust and sneaks back to the bushes. After a few minutes, the man climbs out again, weeping and mumbling and holding a bottle of whisky, reattaches the hose and climbs back into the car. Ricky begins to cry and to plead with his brother to take him home, but Mark pulls the hose loose again. This bizarre ritual continues until the man catches Mark and drags him into the car to die beside him.

Inside, the man threatens Mark with a gun and drunkenly explains why he's committing suicide. He's a lawyer who does work for the mob, and one of his clients, Barry (the Blade) Muldanno, has murdered a United States Senator. Nobody can find the body to use as evidence, but the suicidal lawyer has just learned that Barry hid it under the floor of the lawyer's garage. Besides Barry the Blade, he's the only one who knows, so his life is worthless.

While the lawyer is telling Mark all this and getting steadily drunker, Ricky removes the hose. Mark then escapes from the car and hides in the bushes again. The lawyer climbs out of the car once more, sees the detached hose and shoots himself in the head. The boys run home. Ricky goes into traumatic shock and has to be hospitalized. Both the police and Barry the Blade begin to suspect what the lawyer told Mark just before he died. They begin to press the boy to tell.

But what is most astonishing about this opening, which takes all of 20 pages, is how little Mr. Grisham does with it in the next 400 pages. The Client brings new force to the word anticlimax. It is as if at the outset the narrator had announced that he was about to conduct us on a journey across a desert with a cactus and a rock in it to a mountain range beyond, and that several surprises were in store. The surprises turn out to be that the cactus is a cactus, the rock is a rock and the mountain range is a mountain range. Once again, as he did in The Firm, Mr. Grisham enraptures us with a story that has hardly any point.

What's most irritating is how deeply the plot hooks us. Mark Sway is "a tough little kid, raised on the streets and wise beyond his years," as another character gratuitously informs us. Instead of letting himself be pushed around, Mark goes out and hires himself a lawyer, a woman who calls herself Reggie Love, and he tells her what he's feeling:

"I'm really sick of this. Just sick of it. All my buddies are in school today, having a good time, being normal, fighting with girls during recess, playing jokes on the teachers, you know, the usual stuff. And look at me. Running around town with my lawyer, reading about my adventures in the newspapers, looking at my face on the front page, hiding from reporters, dodging killers with switch-blades. It's like something out of a movie. A bad movie. I'm just sick of it. I don't know if I can take anymore. It's just too much."

Reggie Love is feisty too, a former battered wife who has rebuilt her life and now looks out for abused children. In the novel's only engaging scenes, she outsmarts the various prosecutors and F.B.I. men who want her client to cease obstructing justice.

But instead of developing his plot, Mr. Grisham simply strangles it, gesturing hysterically all the while at the cactus and the rock as if somebody were hiding behind them. The reader keeps wondering why clever little Mark doesn't send some sort of message to Barry the Blade:

"I'm not telling where the corpse is, but if anything happens to me or my family, a dozen lawyers around the country will reveal the contents of a dozen safety-deposit boxes I've told them to open in the event of my demise."

This would be as plausible as what actually happens in the story.

A third of the way into the plot, Mark recalls how he once attacked his father for abusing his mother. "When he came back to the trailer, the door was of course open, and I was waiting. I had pulled a kitchen chair beside the door, and I damned near took his head off with the baseball bat. A perfect shot to his nose. I was crying and scared to death, but I'll always remember the sound of the bat crunching his face."

You think this brutal recounting has to be a setup for some climactic scene to come. But guess again! It's just one in a whole arsenal of Chekhovian pistols on the mantelpiece that never do get fired.

So settle into The Client for the captivating read it promises. Just don't look for any surprises. What you expect is more than what you get.

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This section contains 1,018 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
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