Quite good. You won’t regret reading it.
Title: The Chamber
Author: John Grisham
Pages: 656p (Arrow Books paperback)
FTC disclosure: Reviewed using a copy
purchased by the reviewer
This review may contain spoilers. Read it at your discretion.
The Chamber certainly isn’t one of John Grisham’s most recognizable titles; it also isn’t one of the books that are most beloved by his audience; it’s not even a Grisham’s Grisham or anything of the kind. And that is precisely why I have picked it for the opening review on this website.
It was an unlikely choice given the fact that John Grisham is hardly an author who needs an introduction, or who is in desperate need of yet another review, and especially of one of his ostensibly lesser works. But so much the better—always expect the unexpected.
I have long been considering and reconsidering a seemingly endless line of books that would be appropriate for this review. I pondered countless genres as well as authors while incessantly vacillating between the proven masters of old and the more contemporary talents, only to, invariably, end up being unable to commit myself to one particular title and a specific author. I saw the covers of many books parade intrepidly right through my mind, with me, the viewer, being as powerless to say stop, to make a decision, and to choose one of the available options, as if I were a wretched participant of some TV show.
“What is the thing that I care about the most in writing book reviews? I assure you that I didn’t think of the dubious pleasure of penning scathing reviews and putting this or that novelist down with one clean shot.”
But then I asked myself: what is the thing that I care about the most in writing book reviews? I assure you that I didn’t think of the dubious pleasure of penning scathing reviews and putting this or that unfortunate novelist down with one clean shot, with one biting remark, like a Robert De Niro enthusiast who has watched The Deer Hunter way too often. I immediately thought of the importance of serving justice to the ghastly wronged books and their authors. I thought of the pleasure of writing a redeeming review for the reprehensibly neglected or underrated books, that is, of seeing justice being done.
As it seems, there has been a rather short mental leap from this realization to the master of legal thrillers and the bard of courtroom drama, John Grisham, who deals with justice, in all its kinds and flavors, on a daily basis. And The Chamber, his fifth book, is one of such undeservedly disregarded works.
The novel focuses on Sam Cayhall, an acrid and vile-tongued former Ku Klux Klan member serving his time on death row for taking part in the bombing of a Jewish lawyer a few decades earlier. Now, after years of appeals, the process that is supposed to lead to the execution of his death sentence has been sped up. To his rescue rushes his grandson, Adam Hall, who tricks a law firm he works for into assigning him to the case yet without revealing to them the blood ties linking him to the defendant. It’s difficult to tell whether he does that out of an urge to save his—no matter how despicable—next of kin, to clean up his own family history, or rather out of his inspired opposition to the death penalty.
“Grisham tackles a heavy subject matter here, unlike his more entertainment-friendly yarns, yet he does that pretty much in the vein of his first literary effort, the gritty A Time to Kill.”
Grisham tackles a heavy subject matter here, unlike his more entertainment-friendly yarns, yet he does that pretty much in the vein of his first literary effort, the gritty A Time to Kill. This large book gives Grisham page time to share many conflicting views on the issue of the death sentence and its place—or lack thereof—in today’s society. He lets us take a peek behind the scenes of the intricate capital punishment machine whose cogs start turning after the reading of the verdict and stop only after the convict is treated to a dollop of gas or a lethal injection. It’s indubitably not, by any stretch, a detailed non-fiction account, like Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, but it still offers us an interesting glimpse of the system.
Some claim that this book merely exploits racism for the sake of entertainment, that it’s not profound enough or serious enough to be allowed to broach such a subject. Perhaps there is some truth to it, but I don’t believe that it trivializes the issue either. What is particularly interesting about its plot, is the fact that it not only tells the story of an unrepentant racist whose past crimes catch up with him, but also shows us the pain that such people inflict on their closest relatives, on those who weren’t necessarily involved in their crimes and yet have to pay the price and live with their insupportable burden, with the heavy shadows of other people’s sins being cast on their own lives.
It’s an often ignored perspective on every crime, for we tend to forget that behind every murderer or thief or other criminal, there is his or her family (a mother, a father, a sibling, or—like in this case—a grandson), the accidental victims of all wrongdoings, who have to change their names, lower their eyes in embarrassment, or pretend that they have never heard of such an infamous individual.
“This large book gives Grisham page time to share many conflicting views on the issue of the death sentence and its place—or lack thereof—in today’s society.”
This more serious approach obliged Grisham to break with his well-proven formula for legal thrillers: there are no corrupt FBI agents, no scheming presidents, no contract assassins, no spectacular car chases, and no switchblade-wielding mafia hit men harassing children in elevators to be found on this book’s pages. But this story defies the requirements of the prison genre as well, for you will be disappointed if you decide to look there for daring prison escapes, for acrobatics over and under the prison wall, or for last-minute telephone calls from the governor ordering to call the whole electrocuting thing off.
It marks a significant departure in both style and tone from his earlier works: The Chamber tastes more like a family drama with a gas chamber ominously lurking in the background, akin to a gas-smelling elephant in the room, than a typical thriller. It’s a more character- than plot-driven story, told in noticeably subtler and more nuanced prose.
Nonetheless, it’s not all smooth and flawless. The book occasionally veers too much and too far into the sentimental territory, bordering on mawkishness, and some of its plot devices are seriously at odds with plausibility, like the telephone scheme that is supposed to pressure the governor into dealing the notorious convict a get-out-of-jail-free card.
“It marks a significant departure in both style and tone from his earlier works: The Chamber tastes like a family drama with a gas chamber ominously lurking in the background.”
However, it offers its readers much more than that. I am one of the people who like to get something out of reading a book, just like those who still savor the taste left in their mouths by the just-eaten meal even on their way home from the restaurant. When I read serious literature, I expect to be presented with insightful writing that will rock my worldview, or, at least, give it a little nudge for the next few days. And even when I delve into popular fiction, I hope for more than mere thrills, for more than a gunshot here or an explosion there, no matter how intense they may be—one can always get cheap thrills by jaywalking or validating the ticket only after the bus driver has started up the engine.
That is why, the things I have unfailingly enjoyed about books by John Grisham are those little nuggets of legal knowledge, those tricks of the legal trade, that he can’t help slipping into his plots between the gripping shootings or no less dramatic courtroom scenes. He does that whenever he has a chance to do it, yet while never interrupting the flow of the narrative too obtrusively. Even while leisurely leafing through his books you can learn a little something about appeals, subpoenas, indictments, grand juries etc. And this one is no different, for, as the eponymous gas chamber suggests, it will instantly plunge you into the legal intricacies surrounding capital punishment.
I’m far from claiming that I would recommend using any of Grisham’s novels as handbooks in case of real-life trial proceedings, but those little facts here and there paint a solid factual background, giving the impression that the author is not only a seasoned storyteller, but also a professional who will confidently lead you, dear reader, by the hand through the morass of the legal world, like a hired lawyer would.
However, with The Chamber Grisham has clearly performed a heroic split leap; he’s straddling the literary fence to the point of ripping his pages, for his book may be a tad too slow-paced, if not plodding, for those expecting from him quick thrills, and not too deep or insightful for those with an appetite for something more than mere escapism.
“On the surface, it reads like a typical Grisham book yet with toned-down prose and with the sensational plot devices discreetly moved to the background.”
On the surface, it reads like a typical Grisham book yet with toned-down prose, with the sensational plot devices discreetly moved to the background in order to make room for a more ambitious message taking up the central part of the stage. The change can be noticed on the structural level as well, for the chapters are longer and the characters are more fleshed out than in most of his thrillers.
The question is, whether it is enough to satisfy anyone, whether this book hasn’t landed on the unenviable no man’s land, and whether it hasn’t shared the fate of the title character from Jack London’s novel, Martin Eden, who, no longer a part of the working masses and not yet a member of the elites, belongs to no one.
And this is why, unfortunately, this book rarely finds its way to any list of best Grisham novels, whose top spots are usually reserved for his perennial blockbusters like The Firm and The Pelican Brief—rather unjustly. The Chamber is a truly compelling read, a Grisham thriller on moral steroids, that, even if you’re a so-called serious reader, can be in good conscience put on a coffee table in plain view without pretending and devising a silly excuse that it’s your guilty pleasure and that you read it only between the volumes of War and Peace. It’s a book that, after you reach its final page, will give you something to mull over, and that something won’t be the mere title of the next book to skim through on a beach.