The Pelican Brief | Critical Review by Jeffrey Toobin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Pelican Brief.
This section contains 753 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jeffrey Toobin

Critical Review by Jeffrey Toobin

SOURCE: "Still More Lawyer-Bashing from Novelist John Grisham," in Chicago Tribune—Books, February 23, 1992, p. 4.

In the following review of The Pelican Brief, Toobin asserts that while Grisham's characters "lack humanity" and situations in the novel are implausible, his plots contain a "narrative drive that welcomes readers to suspend disbelief."

John Grisham has done it again—for better or worse. Grisham's 1991 legal thriller The Firm tells the story of a young attorney lured by a high salary to a mysterious Memphis law firm where the new associates have a habit of dropping dead. After learning the dark secrets behind the firm's success, the hero worries less about blowing the whistle on his employers than about stealing their money. The Firm rang true with a public willing to believe everything awful about lawyers and took up seemingly permanent residence on the best-seller lists.

Grisham now seeks a bigger stage for his cynicism, turning his attention from a single corrupted-by-the-mob law firm to the White House and Supreme Court. The Pelican Brief begins late on an October night in the mid-1990s, when Justice Abe Rosenberg, the Supreme Court's 91-year-old liberal firebrand, is murdered in his home in Washington. Hours later, Justice Glenn Jensen, a dimwitted conservative, is garrotted in a gay porno theater. Whodunit?

Actually, that's not much of a mystery. The investigators—and the readers—learn quickly that a slinky terrorist-for-hire pocketed a few million bucks for the hits. The real question is who paid for it and why.

The surviving justices, as well as the FBI, begin scouring the Supreme Court's docket for litigants with large grievances, but Darby Shaw, a second-year law student at Tulane who is also "beautiful and brilliant," writes up a novel hypothesis in a paper she calls the "Pelican Brief." When Shaw's law professor-boyfriend passes the brief to a friend at the FBI, the professor is promptly blown to smithereens by a bomb clearly meant for Shaw.

As the brief circulates in Washington, everyone who sees it finds a reason to cover it up—particularly a top White House aide so evil that he makes H. R. Haldeman look like Beaver Cleaver. Everyone, it appears, is out to get Shaw. She sighs to a friend, "What would you do if you knew you were supposed to be dead, and the people trying to kill you had assassinated two Supreme Court justices, and knocked off a simple law professor, and they have billions of dollars which they obviously don't mind using to kill with?"

What Darby does is change her hair color and sip fancy coffee at a variety of picturesque New Orleans locales—something that makes sense only if you view this novel as a screenplay-in-waiting.

Indeed, the whole of The Pelican Brief is about as believable as an episode of "Mr. Ed." The White House aide warns a colleague about repeating the errors of Watergate, yet he installs a taping system in the Oval office—with the '90s touch of video as well as audio. The FBI and CIA obstruct justice as casually as they order office supplies. And so on.

Yet the new novel shares with The Firm a narrative drive that welcomes readers to suspend disbelief. Grisham knows how to drop hints and red herrings with the best of them, and he writes good dialogue. Grisham does cheat a little when he lets virtually every character in the novel know what's in the darned brief before he finally clues in his readers, near the end of the book. Still, he does keep some suspense rolling along and delivers a punchy, if not exactly surprising, conclusion.

What is most troubling about The Pelican Brief—and The Firm, too—is the universal loathsomeness of the characters. Grisham's law is, the more powerful the figure, the more sinister. Readers who believe that mad billionaires control armies of private assassins and that presidents view murder as a tool to improve their polling numbers will find a kindred spirit in Grisham.

That simplistic approach underlies the contrast between Grisham and his predecessor in legal-literary superstardom, Scott Turow. Think of Raymond Horgan, the once idealistic district attorney in Turow's Presumed Innocent, who in the midst of a tough political campaign betrays his former protege, murder suspect Rusty Sabich.

Horgan is troubled, flawed, real. Turow, recognizes that lawyers don't lack altruism; rather, like everyone else, they just suppress it a lot of the time. Grisham's characters don't just lack altruism, they lack humanity.

And, in The Pelican Brief they engage in a conspiracy so vast, so secret, so complex, so malevolent that…. Oliver Stone, call your agent.

(read more)

This section contains 753 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jeffrey Toobin