John Grisham has done some amazing things. The lawyer-turned-writer has over 300 million copies of his books in print, has nine movies to his name and even been elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives. But perhaps the most impressive thing Grisham has done is to stand up for what he believes in.
In 1996, he paused from his very lucrative writing career and return to the law to take up the case of a railroad worker killed on the job: He won. He serves on the board of directors of the Innocence Project, an American nonprofit organization that advocates the use of DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners.
Wrongful convictions, the death penalty and racism: These are only some of the causes Grisham believes in, and all three are on display in his 34th novel, “The Guardians” (Doubleday, New York, 2019, 371 pages). “The Guardians” features a return to his favorite genre, the courtroom thriller with some updated touches and a rather interesting protagonist.
Cullen Post suffered a nervous breakdown while working as a criminal defense lawyer, literally walking away from the law when he walked out of a courtroom. He would later be inspired to become an Episcopalian priest, and then return to the law, but this time working to exonerate the wrongfully convicted as part of the devoted but extremely strained nonprofit Guardian Ministries, which is where the book takes its name from, of course.
“The Guardians” starts with Post juggling several cases, but it becomes clear the book’s main plot has to do with the conviction of Quincy Miller who has been in prison in Seabrook, Florida, for 22 years for allegedly killing a lawyer named Keith Russo.
He had worked his causes into his books before, notably having written passionately against the death penalty in books such as “The Chamber” and “The Confession.” Grisham had written about flawed trials before. His only book of nonfiction, 2006’s “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” was even adapted into a 2018 Netflix documentary series. Now he applies his fictional talents in a not-so-veiled crusade against the same problem.
Thinly veiled crusadeIt is obviously thinly veiled crusade because the author’s note reveals that “The Guardians” is based on real-life people. Guardian Ministries in based on Centurion Ministries; the Quincy Miller case is based on a Texas case of a man named Joe Bryan, who is still in prison after 30 years.
So in this book, Post crisscrosses the country fighting in his beat-up SUV for those few prisoners Guardian Ministries have chosen to try and free: “The truth is I nap a lot but rarely sleep and this is unlikely to change. I have saddled myself with the burdens of innocent people rotting away in prison while rapists and murders roam free.” This is the point of the book—the plot serves to illustrate this, in Grisham’s well-burnished prose.
“The Guardians” is curiously constructed because the book seems to end twice before it becomes clear there is indeed more to the story, then it kind of slides toward the end. There is one subplot that is seemingly left loose: Perhaps he will return to take it up in the future.
This are obvious touches of vintage Grisham here. Grisham’s previous two books were a little different. “The Rooster Bar” was more whimsical; “The Reckoning” was soapier. “The Guardians” is a straight-up legal drama with suspense elements thrown in. Post is a really compelling if implausible character. He is really the reason you’ll want to read the book as his backstory and the desperate, tireless hustle he has for his clients. Grisham will probably revisit the winning Post and his fellow Guardians in the future.
With the book touching either directly or indirectly on virtually all of the causes Grisham believes in, this book is the first real example of a “greatest hits” of his convictions in a single book. “The Guardians” is firmly poised as a fiery piece of advocacy fiction, with John Grisham taking a stand against the inherent flaws of the justice system and the modern prisons. INQ