The Last Juror
Book Club Selection for June 2020- The Last Juror
by John Grisham
In 1970, Willie Traynor comes to Clanton, Mississippi, in a Triumph Spitfire and a fog of vague ambitions. Within a year, the twenty-three-year-old finds himself the owner of Ford County’s only newspaper, famous for its well-crafted obituaries. While the rest of America is in the grips of turmoil, Clanton lives on the edge of another age—until the brutal murder of a young mother rocks the town and thrusts Willie into the center of a storm.
Daring to report the true horrors of the crime, Willie makes as many friends as enemies in Clanton, and over the next decade he sometimes wonders how he got there in the first place. But he can never escape the crime that shattered his innocence or the criminal whose evil left an indelible stain. Because as the ghosts of the South’s past gather around Willie, as tension swirls around Clanton, men and women who served on a jury nine years ago are starting to die one by one—as a killer exacts the ultimate revenge.
Grisham has spent the last few years stretching his creative muscles through a number of genres: his usual legal thrillers (The Summons, The King of Torts, etc.), a literary novel (The Painted House), a Christmas book (Skipping Christmas) and a high school football elegy (Bleachers). This experimentation seems to have imbued his writing with a new strength, giving exuberant life to this compassionate, compulsively readable story of a young man's growth from callowness to something approaching wisdom. Willie Traynor, 23 and a college dropout, is working as a reporter on a small-town newspaper, the Ford County Times, in Clanton, Miss. When the paper goes bankrupt, Willie turns to his wealthy grandmother, who loans him $50,000 to buy it. Backed by a stalwart staff, Willie labors to bring the newspaper back to health. A month after his first issue, he gets the story of a lifetime, the murder of beautiful young widow Rhoda Kasselaw. After being raped and knifed, the nude Rhoda staggered next door and whispered to her neighbor as she was dying, "Danny Padgitt. It was Danny Padgitt." The killer belongs to an infamous clan of crooked highway contractors, killers and drug smugglers who live on impregnable Padgitt Island. Willie splashes the murder all over the Times, making him both an instant success and a marked man. The town is up in arms, demanding Danny's head. After a near miss (the Padgitts are known for buying themselves out of trouble), Danny is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. As he's dragged out of the courtroom, he vows revenge on the jurors. Willie finds, to his consternation, that in Mississippi life doesn't necessarily mean life, so in nine years Danny is back outâ€"and jurors begin to die. Around and through this plot Grisham tells the sad, heroic, moving stories of the eccentric inhabitants of Clanton, a small town balanced between the pleasures and perils of the old and the new South. The novel is heartfelt, wise, suspenseful and funny, one of the best Grishams ever.
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“Never let it be said this man doesn’t know how to spin a good yarn.” —Entertainment Weekly
“John Grisham is about as good a storyteller as we’ve got in the United States these days.” —New York Times Book Review
“John Grisham may well be the best American storyteller writing today.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
“One of his best: a thoughtful and atmospheric thriller.”—The New York Times
“Classic Grisham, full of excitement and colorful characters.”—The Denver Post
“Compulsively readable . . . heartfelt, wise, suspenseful and funny, one of the best Grishams ever.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Grisham deserves a winning verdict for [this] literary thriller.”—The Boston Globe
About the Author:
SBorn on February 8, 1955 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to a construction worker and a homemaker, John Grisham as a child dreamed of being a professional baseball player. Realizing he didn’t have the right stuff for a pro career, he shifted gears and majored in accounting at Mississippi State University. After graduating from law school at Ole Miss in 1981, he went on to practice law for nearly a decade in Southaven, specializing in criminal defense and personal injury litigation. In 1983, he was elected to the state House of Representatives and served until 1990.
One day at the DeSoto County courthouse, Grisham overheard the harrowing testimony of a twelve-year-old rape victim and was inspired to start a novel exploring what would have happened if the girl’s father had murdered her assailants. Getting up at 5 a.m. every day to get in several hours of writing time before heading off to work, Grisham spent three years on A Time to Kill and finished it in 1987. Initially rejected by many publishers, it was eventually bought by Wynwood Press, who gave it a modest 5,000 copy printing and published it in June 1988.
That might have put an end to Grisham’s hobby. However, he had already begun his next book, and it would quickly turn that hobby into a new full-time career—and spark one of publishing’s greatest success stories. The day after Grisham completed A Time to Kill, he began work on another novel, the story of a hotshot young attorney lured to an apparently perfect law firm that was not what it appeared. When he sold the film rights to The Firm to Paramount Pictures for $600,000, Grisham suddenly became a hot property among publishers, and book rights were bought by Doubleday. Spending 47 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, The Firm became the bestselling novel of 1991.
The successes of The Pelican Brief, which hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and The Client, which debuted at number one, confirmed Grisham’s reputation as the master of the legal thriller. Grisham’s success even renewed interest in A Time to Kill, which was republished in hardcover by Doubleday and then in paperback by Dell. This time around, it was a bestseller.
CG Book Club Review:
The Last Juror- Review
John Grisham is a prolific author. He has written many novels. Early in his career he wrote many legal thrillers. It was during this time that I discovered his books and for several years I read every book that he wrote. I was a new lawyer and his stories were of special interest to me. He was very good at explaining the legal process and technical parts of a criminal proceeding and to this process he would weave a story. I read “A Time to Kill” before it was a movie. His books were turned into blockbuster movies and helped the careers of many of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
But as time passed, I moved on to other authors. I stopped reading Mr. Grisham’s books. I have not read any of his books in a long time until this month when our selection for book club was “The Last Juror.”
As I was reflecting on this book, I thought it was set in a small town similar to the town in “A Time to Kill.” After a little research, I discovered that actually it is set in the same town, the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi . “The Last Juror” is set in the 1970s. “A Time to Kill” is set in 1984. Therefore, you could view “The Last Juror” as a prequel to “A Time to Kill.” Also, several characters are in both books: Lucien Wilbanks and Harry Rex Vonner. Harry Rex also is a character in “The Citation” and in the short story "Fish Files," in the 2009 collection “Ford County.”
The story of “The Last Juror” is broken down into three parts. In the first part, we meet the narrator, William Traynor, who quickly is nicknamed “Willie.” He never graduated from college and he comes to town to intern at the local paper. Because of luck and family help he goes from intern to owner of the paper in a short time. We met the residents of the town. There is a terrible murder and we see the trial of the accused murder. We also meet Miss Callie and we see an unlikely friendship form between our narrator and her. I like the fact that every week Miss Callie went through the paper cover to cover to identify the number of errors that were in each edition. In the second part of the book, we see Willie grow and mature and become invested in Clanton, Mississippi. In the third part, the story comes together for its climatic conclusion.
The 1990s were very good for John Grisham. In 1991, his book “The Firm” was published. In 1992, his book “The Pelican Brief” was published. In 1993, major films of both books by the same names were released. His book “A Time to Kill” actually was his first book and was published in 1989. A film by this same name was released in 1996. His success continued.
Some would argue that this book “The Last Juror” was a return to his first love Ford County, Mississippi and the small town setting of his first book. Some reviews may complain about the lack of action as compared to other Grisham books. But the story is well written and the relationship between Willie and Miss Callie is very creative and memorable.
Also, food takes on a special significance in this book. It is almost its own character in the book.
I thought the book exceeded my expectations in many respects. The reveal of the bad guy was a surprise and not what I was expecting. The final goodbye was emotional and I will admit that I teared up. I think at the end we all want to be surrounded by family when it is time to say goodbye.
My criticisms are few. I thought it was interesting that this was kind of the heyday of newspapers. In contrast to today where papers are closing down, this was a time when papers (run correctly) made money hand over fist. Also, one of the things I liked also is a criticism and that is that at times the good parts of the story were almost perfectly good. Miss Callie had no flaws. She was surrounded by family at the end. Also, there were several things that were left hanging. Miss Callie had a burden for Willie’s status as a Christian. This was never resolved. As several perfect notes were hit in different places this one was forgotten. After all the set up, Willie should have made a decision one way or the other. He should have become a Christian or rejected it. He did neither. Also, I thought Miss Callie’s backstory hit several wrong notes for me. It just did not ring true or it was not explained in a way that made it ring true for me.
There were other things that seemed to be thrown in and seemed to stick out. The goat parties are an example. Also, Willie had a tendency in his narration to fast forward to the future for a sentence or two. Early on we learn that he will own the paper for 10 years. Right before the end the judge says the bail hearing should be short and Willie tells us that the judge did not know how short it would be. I cannot decide whether I liked this or not. It seemed to be a deliberate decision to use this style for the narrator. At times it tended to ease the tension. Willie is being threatened and worries if he will be a target, but you are told that he will own the paper for 10 years so you know it has not been 10 years yet. We learn that one of the attorneys is six months away from being disbarred. I wondered why we cared about this so close to the end. I decided it must be something later explained in “A Time to Kill.”
Overall, the story was good, the writing was excellent with a few things left hanging. The story was compelling and you can see Grisham’s growth as a writer. The story is less tied around the mechanics of a legal proceeding and more about the characters. The ending was very touching. It was a good read.
Ken W. Good