11/20/2012 01:11 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

John Grisham, The Confession : A Book Review

It's hard to explain why I keep reading a book as dreadfully bad as John Grisham's The Confession to the end. In part it's out of that old addiction I have written about before: the need to know how the story will unfold. All stories, for me at least, are hopelessly addictive. In part it's about the investment of time: I've put in so much already, I can't just abandon it as wasted. Then there's that feeling that it can't be quite this bad, it has to get better soon...

In this case, it never did. In fact, it got worse. What a book of this kind has going for it is suspense, and Grisham threw that out the window many tedious chapters before the end. And still I kept reading. I kept stubbornly insisting to myself that there had to be some surprise in store, some twist at the end, something to make all this worthwhile. But it never came. The story wound down, and down, and down until it (mercifully) stopped. I have to say that for the last quarter I was skipping through whole paragraphs and pages out of sheer disinterest.

Aside from its generic "suspense tale" thread, the book is about the death penalty -- the death penalty in Texas. A can't miss, you'd have thought, for a story-teller as successful -- and as knowledgable about the legal system -- as John Grisham. So why does he miss? I think he misses because he overplays the very obvious injustice of a man condemned to die for a crime we know from the start he did not commit. (I won't divulge the outcome of his sentence, in case some other reader might decide, unwisely, to pick up this book.) He misses because the story progresses along entirely predictable lines, even though it's told as though we should be surprised. Because he sets up supposedly suspenseful situations whose outcome is, as your teenager might say, like, duh.

He misses because the book is badly, lazily written. The prose is, to punt it bluntly, dull. When I skipped those paragraphs and pages toward the end it was only in part because I already had all the answers I needed, but also because they were written in that kind of flat prose that causes a glazing of the eye and numbing of the mind. He misses because his characters are pretty much as dull as the prose, no matter how he tries to dress them up. The dialogue of his black high school teenager is virtually indistinguishable from his Lutheran pastor or his serial rapist. Even his riot scenes raise barely a moment of reader anxiety or concern.

The question now is why I spend so much time bothering to write about a book as bad as this. I do believe that an author needs to be held to account, particularly when that author is as commercially successful as John Grisham. That the man has a talent for compelling narrative is well established. I have read books by him that I thoroughly enjoyed. So why should he be permitted to capitalize with impunity on his name, by foisting upon his readership a book as poorly constructed and written as this one? The author and the publisher should be held to account for this shameless exploitation. And while I realize that my voice does not enjoy the amplification of the media bullhorn, I think it my obligation, when I write, is to tell the truth. And the plain truth is that The Confession is a terrible book. It should never have been published, let alone stacked in multiple zillions of copies at every airport bookshop in the world. I bought mine at Heathrow for the airplane ride back to Los Angeles. I wish I had not parted with my money to support this kind of mindless commercialization of the printed word.