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Book review: 'The Confession' by John Grisham

The murder of a prep cheerleader, a falsely accused football star and a convicted sex predator with a guilty conscience set in motion a breakneck-paced legal thriller with that Grisham touch.

November 11, 2010|By Chris Erskine | Los Angeles Times

If only life moved along at the same clip as a John Grisham novel. Beginning writers should study him the way budding composers study Brahms or Pachelbel. He is a master at pacing, even if that doesn't always make up for some of his shortcomings.

His latest, "The Confession," is again legal literature on meth. Travis Boyette is an evil, deathly ill parolee in Kansas with a secret he has to share with someone. The serial rapist picks everyman minister Keith Schroeder for his out-of-the-blue confession to the murder of a high school cheerleader in Texas a decade earlier.

The clock is ticking — it usually is in a Grisham thriller — and in this case that ticking is the impending execution of someone else for the crime, former linebacker Donté Drumm, who confessed to the rape-murder under duress.

Boyette, whose brain tumor is his own personal ticking clock, wants to clear his conscience and spare an innocent man the lethal injection that the state of Texas is about to administer. Reluctantly drawn into the saga, the Topeka minister agrees to drive Boyette to the east Texas town where the murder occurred, in hopes a confession will stop the wrongful execution of Drumm, now days away.

As always, Grisham's cast of characters could fill a courtroom —- you almost want a scorecard.

Atop the heap is Robbie Flak, whose aggressive little law firm "became the destination for those considered even remotely slighted by society. The abused, the accused, the mistreated...."

There is Drumm himself, whose body and spirit have withered after years on death row. Drew Kerber is the corrupt cop who helped coerce the bad confession. Paul Koffee is the prosecutor who saw the lousy-with-holes case through the courts and numerous appeals. Joey Gamble is Drumm's jealous former teammate, who falsely testified that he saw the black linebacker at the mall where the white cheerleader disappeared. Gill Newton is the "[b]rash, loud, vulgar (in private)" wildly popular governor of Texas, mindful only of his poll ratings.

Those are just the starters. The B-team consists of associates, judges, pastors and multiple mothers. Good thing Grisham tells his stories at a fierce, can't-put-it-down clip. For, if you ever set the book aside for more than a few days, you'd be forced to go back and highlight the names.

As always, the book starts fast and finishes faster, though there are those who claim Grisham's beginnings are always better than his endings. I see that, but this one wraps up nicely. And even amid the residue of an awful murder and a bum prosecution, he allows that a town filled with mostly decent people can prevail.

As is frequently the case with Grisham, there are no moral grays areas, which probably suits our polarized world. Those in power are corrupt; those who aren't are honorable but abused. He never seems able to mine the middle ground the way say, Tom Wolfe, or other more nuanced authors deftly do.

Two scenes in particular stand out. One is the replay of the teen's coerced confession, which doesn't really pack the emotional punch you'd expect. I never bought why a strong, bright young man could be so easily swayed.

The other scene is far more effective — a beautiful and personal reflection on a mother's love for the innocent young man whom most of the world thinks is a killer.

"Get up, Donté, and let's go to church," she says. "You'll find a wife there and have ten children. Hurry now, there's so much you've missed. Please. Let's go show you off in your fine new outfit. Hurry now."

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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