The Last Juror - John Grisham

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The Last Juror - John Grisham

In 1970, one of Mississippi's more colourful weekly newspapers, The Ford County Times, went bankrupt. To the surprise and dismay of many, ownership wa...

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Review of "The Last Juror - John Grisham"

published 27/10/2006 | hiker
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"Under Slow Southern Skies"

"After decades of patient mismanagement and loving neglect the Ford County Times went bankrupt in 1970." Our narrator goes on to tell us that the owner "Miss Emma" is strapped to a bed in a nursing home in Tupelo, and that her son, Wilson, in his seventies, has a plate in his head from "the First War"…and a propos the resultant scarring has laboured much of life under the nickname 'Spot' He has spent most of the last decade or so writing obituaries.

And there you have it. The essence of the craft of a writer…or is it the art? The ability within less than a page to create an atmosphere. This is the Deep South. The gentle deep south where people are loving, if neglectful…loving, if teasing…people are proud enough to have a County and a County newspaper but not interested enough to understand how their attitudes effect outcomes. This is the Deep South where life - and news - are slow.

But this is the Deep South in the early 1970s…and the times - even the Ford County Times - they are a-changing.

Within a few more pages we get the life history of the Caudles, soon to be ex-owners/editors of the paper, and the youth-history of its incoming owner/editor - our narrator, Bill Traynor.

Traynor is young and a journalism drop-out. Having failed to make the grade, he's found his education fund cut-off with an accompanying "get a job" message from his indulgent grandmother. It helps to have one of those. Especially if you've dropped out of school and fancy buying a bankrupt County newspaper in the back of beyond.

In fairness, though, that is the only plot quirk that irks. Everything else blends in and feels real.

While Bill is finding himself being rechristened Willie and learning 'southern' ways, near-by the most brutal murder in the history of the county occurs. An attractive young widow is murdered - her children run screaming from the scene to alert the neighbours, who arrive in time to take the dying beauty's confirmation of her killer's identity: "Danny Padgitt. It was Danny Padgitt!"

The Padgitt's are a cross between the Clampetts and the James Gang, with a touch of more modern dubious others. They hide out on an island brewing moonshine and smoking grass, commercially hide behind a number of legitimate business interests and shoot to kill when it matters. They own most of the elected officials in the County, and only threaten where a bribe don't work. After all, this is just business and they don't want to attract attention.

In those conditions, why would Danny brutally rape and murder Rhoda Kasselaw? And if he didn't, why might she say he did? As it happens no-one doubts his guilt…and with a new editor at the County Times…the case is going to get all the gutter-press coverage it could hope for. So how can he even expect a fair trial?


The scene is set for a great courtroom drama.

But if that's what you're looking for. Look elsewhere. That's not the point of this book.

The search for, arrest & trial of Rhoda's killer and the fall-out from it across another decade or so is what holds the story together - but it isn't really the point. In some ways it simply forms a frame to hang a number of short stories on. Many of the chapters could be read that way, almost complete in themselves. A rare skill that can do that, and yet not end up with a novel that feels disjointed. The book flows with the ease of the lower Mississippi. We linger over the growing friendship between Traynor and "Miss Callie Ruffin" - a god-fearing black matriarch with a staunch sense of right and wrong, and a constitution that suffers only from her ability to cook an amazing lunch and enjoy it as God's bounty was meant to be enjoyed.

Miss Callie - is 'the Last Juror' of the title. The last of those to be sworn in…but the first black juror in Ford County. Much as she and her husband had been its first black voters.

Through his relationship with Miss Callie, Traynor begins to discover and understand his adopted County. But he's no slouch…he goes out shootin' with the rednecks too…and courtin' the officials and doin' pretty much what an up&comin' editor gotta to do the mine that gold from his weekly paper. He has the touch though…knows how much of the tradition to milk and how much to ride roughshod over.

We are taken through the remarkable family history of the Ruffins, and this is supplemented with tales of other local notables, vignettes of holidays and church-gatherings - a tapestry of life at a place and time.

The gentleness of the Old South survives in backwaters like Ford County. Vietnam is sort of happening somewhere. And political corruption is what happens in Washington, not down here. But things change. Clanton, home of the Times, changes right along with 'em. Not necessarily for the better.

Perhaps it's a question of how you read. I found all of this - the tapestry - more intriguing than the framework. As a picture of how the most unlikely individuals can become friends, how lives work out in the most unexpected ways, how life in a particular quarter of the United States ran out in a particular decade, it is subtle and powerful - and its ending brought an emotional response. I'd hate you to think that means that the plot-line itself is weak -far from it. Grisham manages the possible outcomes deftly to have you creating scenarios that don't even come close, and holds the suspense of a quiet night in the backwoods throughout.

[Provided always that you do NOT read the blurb on the paperback edition which forms the basis for this review. Giving over half the plot away in three short paragraphs really is no way to sell a book! "Arrow" take note.]

The courtroom scenes ring true - despite his (I gather, customary) disclaimer as to his manipulation of the actual 'law' of the time. Many things might be manipulated to make the story work, but where Grisham really scores is in his ability to capture time - and to create character. Not characters. Character. Of both place and people. With a very simple turn of phrase, he makes you believe…at least for the duration.

And thereafter, he leaves you with a few extraneous matters to ponder.

I gather he's been around a bit - this being novel no. 17 or thereabouts - but it is my first encounter. It will not be my last.


Recommendation: it's an easy read, with depth. A book you don't need to work at, but one which will reward you anyway if you think but a little about the background. One that can be skimmed, but shouldn't be.

Literary genius it isn't. Very well crafted it is.

No complaints.


Published in paperback under the Arrow imprint of RandomHouse
ISBB 0-09-945715-6
Cover price £6.99
pp 504



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Comments on this review

  • solamarie published 29/10/2006
    Not my favourite author but after reading your review, tempting, Sue
  • Coloneljohn published 29/10/2006
    I havn;t read any of his works yet. Something I will have to change. John
  • patriciat published 28/10/2006
    I've read most of his but this has escaped me. Must rectify this. Pat.t x
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Product Information : The Last Juror - John Grisham

Manufacturer's product description

In 1970, one of Mississippi's more colourful weekly newspapers, The Ford County Times, went bankrupt. To the surprise and dismay of many, ownership was assumed by a 23 year-old college drop-out, named Willie Traynor. The future of the paper looked grim until a young mother was brutally raped and murdered by a member of the notorious Padgitt family. Willie Traynor reported all the gruesome details, and his newspaper began to prosper. The murderer, Danny Padgitt, was tried before a packed courtroom in Clanton, Mississippi. The trial came to a startling and dramatic end when the defendant threatened revenge against the jurors if they convicted him. Nevertheless, they found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison. But in Mississippi in 1970, 'life' didn't necessarily mean 'life', and nine years later Danny Padgitt managed to get himself paroled. He returned to Ford County, and the retribution began. About the AuthorJohn Grisham is the author of seventeen novels. The Last Juror is his first novel since A Time to Kill to be set in Ford County, Mississippi.

Product Details

Author: John Grisham

Title: The Last Juror

Genre: Thriller

Type: Fiction

ISBN: 0099457156; 0375728295; 0385339682; 0385510446; 0739441655; 1844131599; 1844131610, 0099457156

Publisher: Arrow Books

All Authors: John Grisham


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