Originally published in 2018
Pete Banning was Clanton, Mississippi’s favorite son—a decorated World War II hero, the patriarch of a prominent family, a farmer, father, neighbor, and a faithful member of the Methodist church. Then one cool October morning he rose early, drove into town, and committed a shocking crime. Pete’s only statement about it—to the sheriff, to his lawyers, to the judge, to the jury, and to his family—was: “I have nothing to say.” He was not afraid of death and was willing to take his motive to the grave.
In a major novel unlike anything he has written before, John Grisham takes us on an incredible journey, from the Jim Crow South to the jungles of the Philippines during World War II; from an insane asylum filled with secrets to the Clanton courtroom where Pete’s defense attorney tries desperately to save him.
The Reckoning is far from my first encounter with the work of John Grisham though this is the first time I have written about one of his books for the blog. Like many, I first encountered his stories through the many film adaptations made in the late 90s and early 2000s and then went back to read the novels that inspired them. At his best Grisham is a highly engaging storyteller able to create tension and excitement in his stories about our legal processes and the search for justice.
Like much of Grisham’s output, The Reckoning follows a series of trials and legal processes connected with a crime: the murder of a pastor by a decorated war hero, Pete Banning. What is most notable about the murder however is that the killer initially admits his guilt but refuses to justify or explain his actions. While we will spend the novel following the legal processes connected with that murder and its aftermath, the mystery at the heart of his novel is what was the motive for the killing.
In other words, The Reckoning is an example of a mystery in the inverted style. We begin the novel witnessing the murder so we know who did it and the means used – what we are doing is searching for an explanation for its causes. I typically refer to stories in this style as justification narratives or whydunits. This is not always an easy type of story to do well but I think it pairs particularly well with legal thrillers because those stories tend to involve a lawyer looking for some good reason they can supply to try and prepare the best defense possible for their client. One example of that approach working well is Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case which was one of the first novels I reviewed on this blog.
Before I go much further though there is one way in which the book was a little atypical of Grisham’s usual style and that is it being a work of historical fiction. Grisham’s historical setting, rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, is convincing and important to the content of his story in several ways. For example, Pete Banning’s war service is very recent.
As you may expect, a novel set during this period and with those issues in the background can sometimes be quite uncomfortable to read. For instance the Banning family, we are told, treat their black workers better than almost anyone in Clanton yet there is an element of self-satisfaction in their thinking that is never directly explored. Grisham is far more effective when articulating how the legal system of that time was set up to protect the interests of wealthy, white landowners like Banning in ways it never would for the area’s black residents.
The scenario that Grisham creates for this novel is an intriguing one and I did appreciate that he does create and sustain some ambiguity in how we should think of Pete Banning. By not stating the reason for the murder until close to the end, all we have to go on is our perception of him as a man and his own sense of conviction that he has done the right thing both in committing his murder and then being prepared to be punished for his own actions.
Whether this is effective will depend on whether you consider Banning to be a sympathetic character or not. I think it is clear that Grisham considers him a hero, particularly from the book’s lengthy mid-section in which we follow his wartime exploits in far too much detail, but I personally struggled to warm to him or care what his reasoning was for the murder.
I was more sympathetic towards Pete’s two children and his sister who have to try to navigate the fallout from the murder. Both children begin the story at the start of their adult lives and so are stuck between their impulse to live their own lives and to return to Clanton in the hope they can do something to help their father. Given that they had no involvement in the situation themselves and everything they stand to lose, it is easier to invest in them and empathize with all they have lost.
Perhaps the character I sympathized most with however was a more minor one – Pete Banning’s attorney. He spends the entire novel being frustrated at every turn by his uncooperative client who blocks every avenue of defense open to him all while dodging paying his legal fees. Grisham does a good job of exploring the ways a client can frustrate their defender.
The other thing I found really interesting about the book was some of the historical background Grisham works into the first section. After reading more about Jimmy Thompson, a particularly colorful character, after encountering him briefly in the novel and I felt that the inclusion of some real historical figures helped bring the story to life all the more.
The mid-section of the novel covering Pete Banning’s war experiences is similarly well researched and features several real historical figures. His treatment of those is also very effective but here I felt Grisham gets lost in his enthusiasm for his historical research and loses track of the core of his story. Clearly the historical events Grisham covers were fascinating to him but given they are just providing background, I feel that far too much time is spent here, only slowing the story down.
Towards the end of the novel we do finally learn the reason for the murder. The circumstances described are interesting and expands on some of the themes Grisham had been exploring very well. Some important details are foreshadowed or clued pretty well which does make it feel pretty satisfying in how it ties some plot threads together, even if I don’t think it makes me feel quite the degree of sympathy for Banning that I think I was meant to.
While the book didn’t quite manage to prompt the emotional reaction I think the author intended, I think it has some interesting things to say about justice and also how unsatisfying that process can be. Even more powerful though is the book’s presentation of the period and place in which it is set. As much as I may grump about the book’s bloated midsection, the historical context of the story is important and Grisham does a really good job of exploring the ways that that the story’s setting affects how events unfold. It is that discussion that I think will stay with me longest when I think about this book.
The Verdict: Grisham is at his best with the sections of this novel focused on the legal processes surrounding the murder. I was less convinced by the book’s middle section which struck me as unnecessarily long and detailed, slowing down the story, but the ending was interesting enough to me to justify the journey.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? There is a pretty good chance you will be able to track down a copy of this book at your local bookstore or perhaps secondhand or thrift stores. If you need to special order a copy the ISBN for the US hardcover is 9780385544153, the US paperback is 978-1984819581 and the US mass market paperback is 978-0525620938.
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