The Firm (1991) by John Grisham

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This is the story of Mitch McDeere, fresh out of law school, who joins a small Memphis tax firm for the money and the perks, only to discover he should have paid more attention to the fine print, such as the fact that no lawyer has ever the left the firm alive.

It’s a legal mystery-thriller that scores high on the first two elements and about average on the third, which makes it a pretty darn good book. Let’s start at the top.

It isn’t about law, but about lawyers (though Grisham cleverly bases the underlying crime of the novel on the only appealing thing about tax law: the many ways of circumventing it). And it’s mostly about Mitch, the rookie, and how he has to prove with his work ethic and hours that his profession really is as important as medicine. Before long, he’s coming to the office at four in the morning and leaving near midnight. This doesn’t sit too well with his young wife, Abby, but the other wives tell her it’s only temporary; after a year or two, he’ll cut back to 70 hours a week or so, and might even take Sunday off. Might.

Grisham, the lawyer, makes all of this fun: the poor, hungry kid trying to make an impression; the solicitous partners; the friendly associates. You know something bad is going to happen to Mitch, and it’s almost funny watching his ambition and greed lead him deeper into the deception of Bendini, Lambert & Locke.

The mystery, of course, is the firm itself, which is sort of like a mini-Stepford. Why does the firm hire only married lawyers straight out of law school, and why only men? Why does it “encourage” children? On the darker side, what about those portraits in the library, the ones of the dead lawyers? How come no one has ever left the firm? The answers aren’t as pleasurable as the suspense (they rarely are), but for all its activity and camaraderie, it’s a creepy place and a good setting.

If Grisham had been an FBI agent instead of a lawyer, I might have liked the “law” a little less and the action a little more, and maybe it would have evened out. That said, Grisham handles the action reasonably well. Yes, Mitch is too smart and yes, the bad guys and the “Fibbies” aren’t always smart enough, but the author avoids some of the most egregious clichés that plague this type of story. To give just one example, remarkably few people die once Mitch joins the firm. Favoring suspense over fisticuffs works very well here. One of the book’s most exciting scenes involves one of the partners, two women, and a copier.

The Firm was a bestseller and that isn’t always a compliment. But in this case, it is. It’s solid entertainment from beginning to end.

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