Review: Grisham shortens things up in ‘Sparring Partners’

“Sparring Partners” by John Grisham (Doubleday)

Since bursting on the scene with the runaway hit “A Time to Kill” in 1989, John Grisham has been one of the most reliable fiction writers alive, churning out a bestselling novel almost every year. But like the best pitchers in Grisham’s beloved sport of baseball, sometimes you just want to throw a change-up. Enter “Sparring Partners,” a collection of three novellas with almost nothing in common. Yes, they’re all about some aspect of the law — the people who practice it or the people who run afoul of it. But that’s the only thing that groups them together.

Grisham fans will probably most love “Homecoming,” set in Grisham’s fictional Clanton, Mississippi, and featuring Jake Brigance, the attorney readers first met in “A Time to Kill” then again in “Sycamore Row” (2013), and “A Time For Mercy” (2020). Jake doesn’t have a ton to do in the story — he’s the eyes and ears for an old friend who committed a crime and now wants to come back to town to get to know the daughters he left behind at a young age when he fled the country fearing prosecution — but Grisham’s characters are so relatable that some readers will be happy spending 125 pages just hanging out with them as they say things like, “So you can buy citizenship? It’s that easy?” Personally, I wanted more plot in this one, but the novella format limits that somewhat, so we get extended character sketches that end with little momentum for the protagonists.

My favorite of the trio was “Strawberry Moon,” which introduces Cody Wallace on the day he is scheduled to be executed. Grisham himself is an outspoken critic of the death penalty, but the story doesn’t take a strong stand. It just gives us a glimpse of Cody’s final hours, as he talks to his prison guard, the warden, a doctor, a priest and a retired teacher who shipped him hundreds of paperback books during the course of his 12 years on death row that “took him to other worlds, other places.” Cody’s backstory is teased out in those conversations, just enough to create some sympathy. It’s tempting to want more of the story, but this one works as a tight, 50-page novella.

The eponymous story in the collection, batting clean-up, comes the closest to a traditional Grisham legal thriller. There’s courtroom intrigue, bribes and family drama galore, all in 123 pages. Without spoiling anything, the plot centers around the Malloy family — two brothers who inherit a once-thriving law firm founded by their father, who is now in prison. They dislike each other intensely and have, in fact, set up their legal practice so while they split everything equally, they don’t even come to the office on the same days so they can avoid seeing each other. There is no love lost for their father, either, so when Dad is on the verge of a pardon, all hell breaks loose. It’s up to a high-ranking woman in the firm, Diantha, to manage the chaos and make a choice: Does she try to help the family heal or look out for herself?

In the end, if you thought Grisham novels were page turners, the three novellas in “Sparring Partners” read even faster than that. They’re an enjoyable enough way to spend a few hours, but are best thought of as an appetizer before the main course. Doubleday announced Grisham’s next novel earlier this month. “The Boys from Biloxi” drops Oct. 18.

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