I remember pretty clearly when I ceased being a supporter of capital punishment. I was watching a TV documentary about an execution. Outside of the prison, just prior to the execution, there were two groups of people. One was an unruly bunch of revelers. They were cheering and waving signs that celebrated the upcoming death of some certainly awful human being. They looked like they were at a party or a political rally. The other group was to the side. It was a smaller group. They were standing in a circle, with lit candles, quietly protesting the fact that the state was about to execute a human being. At that moment I knew exactly which group I would want to be standing with. And it wasn’t the group having fun.
John Grisham is obviously not a proponent of the death penalty either. He’s written several books that exploit the drama of a coming execution of an innocent person. In “The Confession,” Grisham does what he does best. He’s gives us a fast-paced thriller with twists, turns and intriguing characters. It’s not going to win a Pulitzer, but for a Saturday afternoon novel, it’s just fine. And the storyline revolves around the modern death penalty process.
The quick summary—a young African-American kid is wrongfully accused of kidnapping and murdering a young white teenager in a small town in Texas. On the eve of the execution, the real killer steps forward. Attorneys try to prevent the execution. What makes this a good read is that Grisham gives us characters that we know instinctively—the loudmouth talk show host who loves the death penalty, the conservative Governor (so clearly Rick Perry, it’s amazing Grisham didn’t just use his real name), a caring minister, and even an old and wise (and liberal) judge. Plus two pitch-perfect mothers—of the victim and of the accused. Grisham is clever with characters; by giving us people that are somewhat familiar, if not stereotypical, he makes it a more enjoyable and accessible read.
Persistent in most of Grisham’s novels is a fairly liberal bias, one that I don’t think offends the reader too much, mostly because it usually appears as an undercurrent to the main plot. Grisham loves progressive southerners too. Think Reggie Love in “The Client” or Jake Brigance in “A Time to Kill.” Grisham employs good drama to present his more liberal point of view, but given his robust sales, I doubt seriously that his early readership was any more liberal than it was conservative. It seemed like everyone read “The Firm.”
However, the subtlety that Grisham used to write with is gone in “The Confession.” This is a full-scale takedown of the modern method of executing criminals. He sets up the perfect story to make the case that the death penalty doesn’t work and is plain unjust. What’s interesting to me is that the last Grisham book I read was “The Appeal,” a devastating critique of the process of electing judges, and it has the same strong tone. Mostly it’s a valentine to the plaintiffs’ bar and a giant middle finger to the moneyed interests that have sought tort reform. Grisham is writing “agenda fiction.” Yet it feels a bit strange because I think someone who became a fan after “The Firm,” might be surprised to pick this up and find such a blatant political statement. I wonder if after great commercial success as an author, Grisham feels like he can let it all hang out and be more explicit with his point of view? Kind of like someone with a lifetime judicial appointment. No one left to impress, so be exactly who you are.
Given my introduction here, you can imagine that this book was mostly aligned with my own worldview, so I enjoyed it, without having to be too critical of the political statements made throughout the book. But I imagine that the really pro-capital punishment types might struggle with this one.
A coda: This weekend, I watched an excellent TV drama about capital punishment by another writer with a liberal ideology. Here’s the final scene from the episode “Take this Sabbath Day” on my very favorite TV show of all time, “The West Wing,” written by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin:
Sorkin and Grisham sing from the same hymnal, I think. Give the people some great drama, throw in a progressive worldview, and let the consumers sort it out. Nothing wrong with that in my opinion.
Thanks for reading.