John Grisham continues his long-running string of novels with another piece that offers some unique legal discussions. Pete Banning is a well-respected white farmer, a war hero, and an all-around amiable man around Clanton, Mississippi in 1946. This is why it is so troubling when Banning walks into the office of black Methodist minister Dexter Bell and shoots him dead. Banning refuses to elude the authorities and will not speak about the crime. Going through the motions of a trial, but choosing not to offer a formidable defence, Banning is found guilty and sentenced to death. After a few delays, Pete Banning’s day with the electric chair is set. Banning is executed while his adult children and some other family are left with more questions than answers. After a thorough flashback depicting Pete Banning’s life and time in the Pacific arena during World War II, it is back to the late 1940s, where Joel Banning is trying to hold down the fort as the new man of the household. His mother, Liza, has been in an institution since before Pete’s death, another mystery that no one can answer. With wrongful death suits circling around the estate, Joel juggles his legal studies with trying to dig a little deeper to understand why Pete Banning might have felt the need to kill Dexter Bell. There are some loose ends that do not make much sense, but the Bell family remains focussed on punitive damages. With everything up in the air, Joel Banning watches all he has known circle the drain in a family mystery that no one seems able to decipher. Another great Grisham piece that develops slowly and will take a dedicated reader to finish. Recommended for fans of Grisham’s ‘southern legal matters’, though it is apparent that the novel has significant filler sections to pad its length.
I have long been a fan of John Grisham’s work, which approaches the law and courtroom matters from unique perspectives, investing the responsibility in the reader to piece the larger narrative together. That being said, some of his latter work seems to stuff a great deal of information that dilutes the legal arguments with too much backstory. Pete Banning plays a key role throughout the novel, with his development arising through significant backstory recounting in the middle portion of the book. Leaving his family to wonder what happened to fuel his need to commit capital murder, Banning’s life story comes to life when he is a POW in the Philippines, where Grisham offers a detailed narrative that keeps the reader enthralled. The latter portion of the novel shifts much of the focus on Joel Banning, legal mind and amateur sleuth. Trying to piece the great family mystery together, Joel seeks to turn over many stones to see what might slither out. The numerous other characters offer some interesting 1940s South flavour to the story, particularly the legal matters that address how a white man can be charged and fond guilty of killing a black man in Mississippi. Grisham is keen on stand-alone novels, though there are usually some interesting stereotypes that emerge throughout. The story in this piece is strong, depicting both the legal issues around race and murder, as well as estates and wrongful death suits. Most interesting of all is trying to determine what might have led Pete Banning to commit the ultimate crime and toss his family into significant distress, which comes together in the final chapter. I will admit that the middle section of the book, that exploring the time Banning spent in the war, presumed death and being tortured, seemed to be a great deal of drawn out character depiction and backstory. Some have bemoaned its presence in the novel, though I simply wonder if it could have been curtailed to a refined few chapters. While I choose not to spoil this for anyone, that backstory portion does not play into the foundational arguments for the murder he committed. I found the writing to be quite captivating as I pushed through the story in short order. Another Grisham success for those with patience!
Kudos, Mr. Grisham, for entertaining the reader from the outset. This is a story that will keep the reader thinking throughout as they become enthralled with the detailed writing. I cannot wait for the next piece you have planned.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons