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"The King of Torts" is classic Grisham, in the form of "A Time to Kill, " The Firm, and "The Pelican Brief"... While "The King of Torts" still doesn't quite measure up, it is incredibly good...What makes "The King of Torts" so good is the conceptual elements fans have grown to love about Grisham's thrillers: an underdog young attorney, a mysterious and clandestine protagonist, greasy "ambulance-chasing" attorneys and unscrupulous corporations. In the end, as always, it's all about the dollar.
Our "hero" in this thriller is J. Clay Carter II, a low-paid public defender in Washington, D.C. Clay has a well-to-do fiancee, Rebecca Van Horn who, along with her pugnacious mother and father continually nettle Clay to take a more lucrative job. His future in-laws are everything Clay despises. When he rejects Mr. Van Horn's offer of a corporate position making more than twice his Public Defender pay, Rebecca dumps him for an geeky Ivy Leaguer.
Concurrent with his personal life heading south, Clay has just been ambushed into handling the defense of Tequila Watson, a young black man who shot a friend named Pumpkin. Although totally unmoved, Clay is intrigued as to why Tequila can't remember killing Pumpkin. It's as though his mind has been washed away...with drugs, Clay suspects. After issuing subpoenas for all the medical files from the street-tough drug rehabilitation center where Tequila was being treated, Clay gets the call of his young life. As Grisham describes him, "the man in black." Clay meets the man in black, Max Pace, an ex-lawyer cum "fireman," hired to solve problems on behalf of a variety of unnamed companies. His current "project" is on behalf of a major pharmaceutical company, which has just pulled the plug on a bad drug...a drug that has the side effects of making ex-addicts kill for no apparent reason. Pace's job for Clay? Offer the victims' families large settlements not to pursue any potential investigation or legal action. For this, Clay will receive a cool $15 million. Clay takes an extremely short moment and decides that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why, he would be foolish to turn it down, wouldn't he?
Sure to his word, Max makes Clay a millionaire with a few short weeks of work. And, to add pleasure to ecstasy, Max has another, much larger "deal" for Clay. This deal involves another bad drug but this time, Clay gets to play the mass tort game. This, all from "tips" provided by the mysterious Max Pace. As Clay's new lawsuit takes form, he lands thousands of class-action suits and is dubbed by the major media "The King of Torts." As the pitiful pharmaceutical company decides to settle with Clay and his newly minted legal bretheren, Clay is two-for-two, only this time, his take isn't $15 million; it's $100 million! Like taking candy from a baby. Clay believes he's this good and here comes the element creating problems for most, greed.
As Clay acquires a yacht, a private plane, an island retreat and a trophy girlfriend, he burns through his new found wealth at an astonishing pace both for pleasure and in funding his next legal bonanza. But, like Mitch McDeere, Grisham's protagonist in "The Firm", Clay soon learns that his newly acquired riches come with a price he can't afford to pay.
Grisham's glimpse into the world of mass tort attorneys is poignant and timely. How many commercials do we see on television from those soliciting our aches, pains, and more frighteningly, our health. The multi-million dollar advertising campaigns they use to attract clients and the huge sums they extract from big corporations are astonishing.
Unlike many of the Hollywood stories, not all mass tort actions have "happy" endings. In some cases, attornys undeservingly obtain riches simply because the defendant corporation believes it can spend less to settle than to litigate. At some surreal level, this crack in our legal system is one that is uncomfortable at best; horrifying at worst. In many cases, good, well-intentioned companies are forced into bankruptcy and the victims, who suffered the most, are left with little after attorney's fees.
Grisham sets a good pace for this storyline and develops the characters quite well. The only problem I saw with the book is, having set up strong characters and revealed the conspiracy, Grisham spins the story to a condensed close. While this glimpse of the Grisham of old is encouraging, the sprial down to climax was a return to the recent past. This doesn't spoil the book, as a whole, but it does bring the awestruck level down to solid.
A good book, a fun read. I hope this is a peek into Grisham's future direction.