I’ve said before that in a different life, I wish I could be a lawyer, or at least, a researcher for a lawyer. I love going down legal rabbit holes, and I’ve always been fascinated by the machinations of the courts, both their aspirational ideals and their more pragmatic workings. But most importantly, I’ve been drawn to the idea of defending, acquitting, and exonerating innocent men akin to the ACLU or the Innocence Project. All of that is to say, John Grisham’s books fit right in my wheelhouse, albeit, his 2022 novel, The Boys from Biloxi, is told generationally through the perspectives of prosecutors (a criminal defense attorney still gets showered with praise, though).
Grisham’s novel feels like a tour de force because of the generational aspect. He sets the book along the Coast in Mississippi, aka Biloxi, where unlike the rest of the state, booze, girls, and gambling are rampant, attractive to tourists, and the police and politicians are both patrons and persons willing to look the other way. Setting is a big piece of the novel puzzle for me: I like different settings than usual and I like when a setting feels like a teeming, breathing character itself, as Biloxi does here. Within Biloxi, Grisham presents two boys raised by two fathers and who start out as best friends, but end up diverging drastically largely because of differing patriarchal influences. Keith Rudy is the son of Jesse Rudy, and Hugh Malco is the son of Lance Malco. They’re growing up as star athletes in post-WWII America, but even before the fatherly influence, Grisham puts in subtle fissures that show what Hugh is destined for, primarily that he’s not the athlete Keith is, and more importantly, doesn’t have the same mental dedication Keith does.
Meanwhile, we learn that Jesse is a hard-working honest WWII veteran eking out a modest living with his wife and four children, with Keith the oldest of the litter. Jesse decides to put himself through law school at night, succeeds, and then thanks to a freak once-in-a-half century storm, Camille, he becomes known locally as the lawyer who took on the big, greedy and evil insurance companies and won. That sets the groundwork for more grandiose ambitions: becoming the District Attorney and doing so on a campaign pledge to clean up the Strip, what the seedier parts of Biloxi are known as. Those seedier parts are largely controlled and run by Lance, who launders money through seemingly reputable businesses, pushes alcohol (before it was legal), gambling, strip clubs, and most profitably, prostitution.
In other words, the two fathers are on a collision course while the two sons’ friendship drifts apart as they age and their interests aren’t so aligned. Keith is following in his father’s footsteps to become a lawyer, and Hugh is following in his father’s footsteps to one day take over the family crime syndicate. Heck, even by the age of 15, Hugh is hanging around with Nevin Noll, a true blue gangster and psychopath, who shows him the ropes, teaches him to fight, and even hooks him up with his first prostitute. Hugh never stood a chance in that environment.
Jesse actually loses his first race in the late ‘60s for DA because the incumbent not only ran a dirty race, but was helped by Lance and the corrupt Sheriff Fats Bowman. The Sheriff’s Office essentially acts as the overall mafia controlling the criminal mafias in town, taking their own cuts of everything and looking the other way. That’s why Jesse’s crusading righteousness to clean up the Strip is such a threat to them. Nonetheless, in his second bid for DA four years later, Jesse does win. And eventually he starts sticking it to the criminal club owners, including Lance, sending them to prison.
Hugh and Nevin retaliate by hiring a bomb-maker — who previously bombed black churches for the KKK — to kill Jesse. He succeeds. I loved the Jesse character because he was so earnest and good, so that was a blow to read, uh, no pun intended. His son, Keith, steps into the role of DA, though, and continues the crusade, this time going after the bomb-maker, Nevin, and most importantly, Hugh, his one-time best friend. Because it’s Mississippi, and because it’s after the Supreme Court allowed the “death states” to resume executions, Keith is able to pressure the bomb-maker and Nevin to flip on Hugh, securing a conviction against Hugh (he doesn’t actually do the prosecuting at trial, though, since that’s a conflict of interest, so a special prosecutor is brought in). In other words, Keith has a heavy hand in sending a former best friend to the gas chamber. Keith is friendly with the Mississippi Governor and the Governor gives Keith the ability to decide on Hugh’s clemency. He meets with Hugh on his execution date; Hugh denies intending to harm Jesse, but I don’t believe him and neither does Keith. There will be no clemency, but perhaps unlike how he initially felt, Keith won’t stick around to watch the execution.
I thought Grisham’s book was a beautiful tapestry of legalese — how Jesse won against the insurance companies, and his incremental victories against the club owners, but also the legal maneuvering and one-upping — woven together with interesting police work when the state and federal authorities come in to help the Rudys at various points along the way, particularly in expertly trapping and catching the bomb-maker, and the real human side of the characters and what it means for such humanness to come up against both the evil and rottenness of other humans, but also the massive machinery and bureaucracy of the court system — how unyielding it can seem, cold, achingly slow, and not ever enough (remedies, help, justice).
I would continue reading Keith Rudy’s story as he makes his way up the political ladder, although he seems more keen to be in the limelight than his father was. Which gets back to the main point of Grisham’s book, as I see it: How two boys bonded in boyhood can grow up to be on opposite sides of the law and morality, and how muddied that gets when you’re talking about the death penalty, too. But also, I think this is a story about how when you’re talking about the criminal justice system, there are always “winners” and “losers” on legal paper, but it’s hard to say anyone ever really wins.