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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

Tobacco Firms, a Dubious Lawyer, a Widow's Lawsuit and a Stalker : THE RUNAWAY JURY by John Grisham; Doubleday; $26.95, 401 pages

June 04, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Grisham's timing for this novel--about elaborate and sneaky attempts to influence jurors hearing a landmark lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers--couldn't have been better.

Just up the road from Biloxi, Miss., the site of Grisham's fictional trial, a federal appeals court in New Orleans last month rejected a massive class-action suit on behalf of tens of millions of U.S. smokers, preserving Big Tobacco's unbeaten record in major litigation.

Today almost everyone believes that smoking causes lung cancer and other ailments, that tobacco companies are aware of its hazards and have manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes to get smokers hooked. So why can't they be held liable?

Every year the suspense builds. Can Big Tobacco's money and political clout hold out forever against the moral consensus that has developed against it? On the other hand, if the dam breaks, will a flood of litigation wipe out whole industries?

Meanwhile, the public hasn't had time to forget its unease over what the O.J. Simpson murder trial revealed about the arcane science of jury selection. Efforts by consultants to custom-tailor a jury for the prosecution or the defense may have been lawful, but they offended our notion that a jury ought to be 12 ordinary people picked more or less at random.

In "The Runaway Jury," the four fictional tobacco firms defending against a suit on behalf of the widow of a lung-cancer victim aren't satisfied with those legal expedients.

They aim to play dirty too. They hire attorney Rankin Fitch, whose arsenal of blackmail, bribery and other tricks, has ensured their victory in previous trials.

*

Soon, however, Fitch starts receiving phone calls from a mysterious young woman named Marlee, who correctly predicts increasingly bizarre behavior by the jury.

She seems to be linked to Nicholas Easter, the one juror about whom Fitch's operatives have been able to find out puzzlingly little.

"Have you ever known a person to stalk a trial?" a colleague asks Fitch, who answers no. But Easter has done just that.

Fitch is clearly the novel's heavy. For the longest time, though, Grisham leaves us uncertain who Marlee and Easter are, which side they are on and whether they are activists or thieves.

Give Grisham credit for taking a chance. This narrative strategy adds to the suspense at the risk of allowing us nobody to root for in what shapes up as a depressingly amoral story.

The safeguards of the jury system are helpless against Fitch's high-tech espionage and unlimited bankroll--nor are the plaintiff's lawyers blameless either. The smart people in "The Runaway Jury" are devious, the nice people are fools, and everybody--everybody--has a price.

Including, it seems, Marlee, who offers to sell Fitch the verdict he wants--"My friend Easter is controlling the deliberations even as we speak"--for a tidy $10 million.

Indeed, this is a peculiar novel, as bestsellers go. It has almost no sex, no violence, no character with an interesting interior life. Out of the vast range of human passions, it's limited to greed--except, briefly and not too convincingly, at the very end.

Grisham's pacing is good, and the battle of wits between Fitch and his adversaries is enough to keep us reading, but otherwise "The Runaway Jury" offers little of what we usually expect from fiction.

What it give us instead is journalism. With his lawyerly expertise, Grisham makes us feel we know what's going on behind the scenes at his trial--and, by extension, at real trials. In his colorless but clear prose, he provides a comprehensive and evenhanded summary of smoking-liability issues.

Only where journalism fails us--in not telling us, in terms we can easily understand, why the legal system seems to be malfunctioning--does Grisham begin making things up. The fictional part of this story is, in truth, a paranoid fantasy, but it's as carefully and persuasively detailed as all the rest.

What's this prove? That Grisham isn't the only one keeping an eye on the headlines. His readers are too.

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