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The Last Juror    by John Grisham order for
Last Juror
by John Grisham
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In a departure from his usual legal thrillers, John Grisham gives us a novel centered on a heinous rape/murder, a case whose ominous shadow darkens a small Mississippi community down through the years. The story is told by young college dropout Willie Traynor, who by a bizarre set of southern circumstances, a rich grandmother, and with Lady Luck on his side, becomes the rookie owner/editor of the local Ford County Times newspaper.

Traynor reminds me of Jimmy Stewart's naive and idealistic movie persona. Willie is soon charging windmills and suffering attacks from his sophisticated elders, as he publishes pieces on the trial and conviction of Danny Padgitt. Padgitt is accused of the rape and murder (in front of her small children) of a young widow, who identified him as her killer before she died. Straightforward conviction? The problem is that Padgitt is the scion of a Mississippi Mafia family, whose fortune (from illegal booze and now drugs) has been used to buy off cops and politicians. Padgitts regularly issue forth from their fortress island to violently preserve their interests, reminiscent of the clan of bad guys in Lorna Doone.

Clanton is a good ol' town, 'the buckle of the bible belt'. It's full of colorful characters, such as Harry Rex, who becomes Willie's wiser mentor as he copes with arson and threats, and writes about his first big case. At the same time, Traynor has written a series of articles on Calia Ruffin, a cultured, literate black matriarch who has raised a family of Ph.D.'s. She's an affectionate 'Miss Callie' to Willlie, feeds him weekly feasts and becomes a close friend. When she's selected as the 'last juror' on the Padgitt case, Traynor worries that the spotlight he shone on Miss Callie affected her selection. He feels even more guilty after the defendant threatens his jurors - 'You convict me ... and I'll get every damned one of you.'

That's only the beginning of a leisurely story that Grisham masterfully unfolds through the years that follow, incorporating events like desegregation, the Vietnam war, the impact of big chain stores on small town life, a farcical confrontation with a schizophrenic sniper, and an election ('Democracy at its finest') that finally ousts corrupt officials. Traynor is shocked by Harry Rex's revelation that 'a life sentence in Mississippi is ten years', and indeed Padgitt is paroled early, through his family's influence and despite Willie's zealous attempts to prevent it. When jurors begin to die, friends and neighbors rally round to protect them, and of course fingers are pointed at the convicted killer.

Though it includes murder and mayhem, The Last Juror is more like Grisham's Painted House than The Firm, incorporating elements rather like a role reversal on Driving Miss Daisy. It's a wonderful read, emotionally satisfying on all levels.

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