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At the opening of John Grisham's intriguing thriller, "The Pelican Brief," two Supreme Court Justices, one liberal and one highly erratic, are murdered in a single evening, one of them at home, the other at a pornographic movie theater for homosexuals. The President of the United States is delighted. The murderer, we know, is a super lone-wolf ex-terrorist named Khamel, who, as one character explains, is "the most proficient and expensive assassin in the world," "can kill with either hand, either foot, a car key, a pencil, whatever" and "speaks 12 languages." Switch scenes now to New Orleans, where a hungover Tulane University law professor named Thomas Callahan is awakened by Darby Shaw, the beautiful and brilliant student he is sleeping with,and told of the assassinations. Tom, who idolised one of the dead Justices, is so devastated that Darby goes to the law-school library and puts together a wildly speculative brief naming the powerful and politically connected figure who profited most from the assassinations. Tom is impressed enough by the brief to pass it on to an old friend, Gavin Verheek, who works for the F.B.I., who turns it over to the Director, F. Denton Voyles, who decides to show it to the President, who asks Voyles not to press the matter. A few evenings later, Darby and Tom eat dinner out. Tom drinks too much and Darby asks him not to drive home. Tom drunkenly insists and Darby hangs back from the car. Tom starts his Porsche, which explodes into a fireball. Darby, watching the burning wreckage, realises that the car bomb was probably meant for her. Apparently her research, called the "pelican brief" was not so wildly speculative. Grisham's novel has some clever fun with both the political thriller as a form and a plot that takes off on events of the past two decades in Washington. The F.B.I. plays hardball with the Oval Office, which is managed by an overzealous chief of staff who runs a heavily financed Committee to Re-elect the President. Unlikely people keep getting killed, potential heroes and potential villains. But though "The Pelican Brief" is diverting, it is rarely disturbing. The story keeps throwing away its opportunities. The main problem is that the characters are about as complex as so many lengths of lead pipe. Darby herself is brilliant and sexy and hunted, but there's no dimension to her. She isn't even as interesting as Mitch McDeere, the protagonist of Grisham's best-selling previous novel, "The Firm," with whom you could at least identify for feeling overworked on his first job. All the novel really wants is to be exciting and violent. The deepest thing it has to say about itself comes up in a description of how the assassin Khamel went about learning English. "He had absorbed the language while hiding in Belfast, and the past 20 years had watched thousands of American movies. His favourite was 'Three Days of the Condor.' He watched it four times before he figured out who was killing whom and why." The chase is fast-paced but not as fast as in "The Firm." There Grisham dealt with two old-fashioned American preoccupations, paranoia and greed. This time around, he also tackles the courts, the Government, the ecology and the newspaper business among other things. " Grisham has written a genuine page-turner. He has an ear for dialogue and is a skillful craftsman. Like a composer, he brings all his themes together at the crucial moment for a gripping, and logical, finale.