I grew up reading John Grisham. The Firm was the first adult novel I’d ever tried to read. I remember being fairly young, and trying to figure out how people ever kept so many characters and subplots straight. I’m still a fan of his earlier legal thrillers, but I haven’t read him in a while (Bleachers is pretty well-written, but I prefer his legal thrillers, and I haven’t really enjoyed any since The Partner). So when I saw The Confession, I decided to check it out, and see if I could recapture the excitement of the earlier thrillers.
I was absolutely disappointed. It started off interesting, with a man named Travis coming to a church in Kansas and confessing that he raped and murdered a girl in Slone, Texas about a decade ago. The pastor, Keith, is unsure whether or not to believe him, but some online research reveals that Travis has a long record of sexual crime. The veracity of Travis’ confession is especially important because Donte, a classmate of the victim, had already confessed to the crime and convicted nine years ago, and will be executed in Slone in a couple of days. Travis isn’t allowed to leave the state, yet Keith can’t let an innocent man die either. So far, a promising premise.
Unfortunately, The Confession quickly becomes an anti-death penalty manifesto rather than an actual story. We know within the first few chapters that Travis is telling the truth; we can also predict fairly early on how Keith will decide to try to save Donte. The main conflict then is a race against time to save Donte. Grisham focuses mostly on people and events in Slone — Donte’s lawyers and family, the victim’s family and the media. Because Donte is black, Slone mostly divides along racial lines, with the black community protesting Donte’s innocence and the white community calling for his blood, and race riots threatening to erupt. Still potentially exciting, but Grisham reduces his characters to stock figures. Donte’s lawyer is idealistic, and his family is just after justice. The victim’s mother is mostly after fame; the prosecutor and governor are concerned only about looking good on camera. Worse, it turns out Donte was completely screwed by the system for nine years — his confession was coerced, the prosecution’s star witness was clearly jealous of Donte, all his appeals failed despite having merit because of politics, the original trial judge was even shown to have been sleeping with the prosecutor. Such a corrupt system, such a victimized young man. We get it. Enough. And yet Grisham continues revealing injustice after injustice after injustice. It began to feel like a soap opera, where some villain was manipulating the strings to make life as difficult as possible for the poor hero.
Grisham has always advocated a clear side on issues (mostly: rich corporations = bad, pro bono lawyers = good), but it hasn’t bothered me as much as in The Confession. It’s not even that I disagree with him about the death penalty (to be honest, I haven’t really made up my mind on the issue yet). But Grisham’s other novels at least had an interesting story and likable characters to go with the soap box. By completely removing the ambiguity from the characters, Grisham presents The Confession as an argument on why the death penalty should be abolished. It can’t even be called a debate, because he refuses to make any of the pro-death penalty characters sympathetic, nor does he explain their reasons for advocating the death penalty, beyond their need to pander for votes (the governor) or the desire to be on camera (the victim’s mother).
Because the characters are so one-dimensional, and the conflict so straightforward, The Confession was boring. Certainly, Donte’s situation was unjust, but Grisham makes him into such a martyr that I almost wanted it to turn out that Donte really did kill the girl after all. Unfortunately, the story unfolds pretty much as expected. I can understand why Grisham would be against the death penalty; I can even understand why he’d be so angry he wanted to tell us why the death penalty should be abolished. It’s just, in a novel, I prefer to have a story as well.