John Grisham, master of the legal thriller, has been slipping in recent years but he comes back strong in The Confession. The story begins on a Monday morning and races towards the expected execution of one Donte Dumm set for that Thursday at 6:00 pm. Drumm is an innocent man, convicted of the murder of a popular cheerleader in the small Texas town of Sloan. Grisham begins by introducing us to the real killer, Travis Boyette, a convicted sexual predator recently released and diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. Facing his impending death, Boyette seeks God’s forgiveness through the guidance of Reverend Keith Schroeder, who presses Boyette to confess in order that Drumm may be saved. If only it were that easy.
In The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, Joyce Sarick writes that “Legal Thrillers address abuses of the law and often pit a David against the Golliaths of corrupt lawyers, legal firms, and justices.” (Sarick, 2009, 76) Grisham is an avowed opponent of capital punishment and The Confession dramatizes his many arguments against it. The book is packed with many stock characters. Drumm’s lawyer, Robbie Flak is described as “brilliant and brash” and “consumed with social injustice.” He is Grisham’s “David” – up against the racist and corrupt Detective Kerber, who railroaded Drumm into a false confession, and a prosecutor and governor who are determined to save their reputations even if it means executing an innocent man.
It’s hard to feel much empathy for most of the characters who inhabit the town of Sloan. Those of the side of right (fighting against Drumm’s execution) while portrayed somewhat more favorably, still seem somewhat beaten down and hopeless. Those working against Drumm are portrayed in as negative a light as possible. Even the victim’s mother, Reeva, comes across as a conniving publicity seeker, shedding more tears for the camera than her daughter. The only character I felt empathy for was the Reverend. It is his struggle to do the right thing and bring Boyette from Topeka to Texas to stop the execution that I could admire and identify with, and this was the main appeal factor for me.
I also enjoyed the fast pace, and the many twists and turns as the story jumped from one legal maneuver to another, through multiple characters points of view and numerous settings. While Grisham goes into some legal terminology, he does so in such a way that it doesn’t bog down the story. The details of the rape and murder are kept to a minimum so there is limited graphic violence, language, or sex. While not everyone has a happy ending, my favorite protagonist, the Reverend, does which made me happy. Grisham manages to ends the book with one final shot at capital punishment, demonstrating that despite everything that happened in the book, ultimately the death penalty prevails.
Gisham, John. The Confession. New York: Doubleday, 2010.