11/17/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

John Grisham's Latest Thriller, Gray Mountain

Death, taxes and John Grisham's annual return to the bestseller list are all we can reliably count on nowadays. The first two are best to avoid, if at all possible. The last is simply unavoidable. With nearly 300 million books sold around the world, reading Grisham has become a global guilty pleasure. His dominance over the legal thriller -- infusing it with the guts of its own genre -- has made him more than just a popular writer who is read in 42 different languages. Like Coke and Pepsi, Grisham is now his own global brand.

Since the publication of A Time to Kill in 1989, Grisham has written one book a year, and true to form, his latest novel, Gray Mountain, arrives both on time and with all the thrilling suspense and supple plotline that we have come to expect of this master storyteller.

And this new novel is also very much of the moment, taking on a serious but generally underreported environmental issue -- strip mining, otherwise known as mountaintop removal. Coal mining in Gray Mountain is as villainous an industry as insurance companies are in Grisham's The Rainmaker and law firms are in The Firm.

At the center of this novel is one of Grisham's rare female protagonists, Samantha Kofer, a Wall Street lawyer given a leave of absence after the Great Recession of 2008 when layoffs from the mortgage mess and bank bailouts caused a good deal of soul searching -- and overall panic -- within the legal profession. Samantha finds herself interning at a legal clinic in the desolate, impoverished valley of Brady, Virginia, one of many Appalachian towns raped by the coal companies, leaving the land pockmarked and the residents deathly ill.

This issue seemed personal to Grisham.

"Many of my novels deal with legal and political issues, topics such as capital punishment, judicial elections, tobacco litigation, insurance fraud, homelessness and environmental destruction," he said. "The best books are those that weave a legal thriller around a particular issue. I was drawn to the topic of mountaintop removal because it is an ongoing environmental disaster, destroying much of the culture of Appalachia. It is a classic case of big corporations running roughshod over the land and its people by buying off the politicians and regulators. And, I'm not finished with it."

Yet, this novel is not a valentine to renewable energy or a manifesto against greenhouse gas emissions. Gray Mountain takes aim at how the coal gets mined, and not how it gets used as an energy source.

"Coal was mined in this country for a hundred years without destroying mountains,"
Grisham explained. "Deep mining, as it is known, produced all the coal we could use while providing almost a million jobs. Deep mining was (and is) tough work, but the miners earned dignified wages and were proud of their jobs. About thirty years ago, the coal companies began strip mining and leveling mountains. It's far cheaper and quicker, and now there are only about 80,000 mining jobs. If strip mining were stopped, the coal would still be mined, though it would be more expensive."

Like all Grisham novels, however, the politics of the book is secondary to the seamless page-turning ride that makes them such enjoyable reads. Samantha becomes a fast study on the sins of the coal industry and the grim lives of the local population who are far worse off than any of the associates pounding the streets and blowing through their savings back in New York. But the story also takes some interesting, unexpected turns, including a bit of romance for this young female lawyer who was jilted by New York.

"My goal with an issue novel is to first, and always, entertain, but also to enlighten," Grisham said. "I don't do this every time out because an author can only intrude so far with his or her politics. You can preach a little in a novel, but it had better not sound like a sermon."

And entertain this novel certainly does. Samantha's life in Big Law, with its fat paychecks and hipster bar scenes are soon replaced with the monastic existence of a legal clinic in a small town facing off against Big Coal. This former real estate lawyer who knew nothing but faceless corporate clients and never stepped inside a courtroom is suddenly given real people to represent and actual cases to litigate in Appalachia.

The legal clinic in Gray Mountain is depicted as the only sanctuary for the downtrodden victims of the coal mining industry and those that suffer the pathologies of social disorder and family collapse. These lawyers may never experience the excitement of the rat race that Samantha once craved, but their days have meaning and their clients would be helpless without them.

"Legal Aid lawyers are true heroes," Grisham said, noting that he has many friends who live in New York and thrive there. "It is estimated that about half of all Americans do not have access to civil justice. Many valid claims and defenses cannot be pursued because people can't afford lawyers. These lawyers fight for the poor, the homeless, the voiceless, those on the fringes. Legal Aid is the last line of defense for many Americans."

The novel features not only the rare Grisham heroine, but also a steamy sex scene (perhaps his first ever), as if the cold winter in the Appalachians and that scarred landscape provided this otherwise courtly southern writer with a reason to generate some overdue body heat.

"I write at least one book a year, so I'm always thinking of who might be the next protagonist. It's much easier to write from the viewpoint of a white male, for obvious reasons, but that gets boring," he said. "It's much more difficult to write from a woman's perspective. That's why I've only done it a few times. When written properly, the story will captivate and entertain all readers, not just women, though bestselling writers are very much aware that most book buyers are in fact female."