Sunday, December 13, 2009

“The Associate”, by John Grisham (Arrow)

Grisham-TheAssociateBlackmail and Corporate Espionage in the Big Apple, and a law-grad in over his head

Kyle McAvoy is one of the outstanding legal students of his generation: good looking, a brilliant and driven legal mind, and a future of endless possibility ahead of him.

He also has a secret from his undergraduate days, a secret that resurfaces and threatens to destroy his fledgling career even before it’s begun.

Kyle is confronted with a compromising video of the incident that haunts him. The men who show it to him make it clear to Kyle that they now control his future - that he must do as they tell him, or the video will be made public.

Strangely, the price they ask of Kyle is to do exactly what any ambitious young lawyer would want to do: take a job as a legal associate at the largest law firm in New York – a job that is fantastically well paid and, with mammoth hours and outrageous billing, could lead to partnership and a fortune. The catch is that Kyle won't be working for the firm, but against it – passing on secrets of the company's biggest trial to date to his blackmailers. The case is a dispute between two defence contractors, the outcome worth billions of dollars to the victor.

Kyle is caught between the forces manipulating him and the FBI, who would love to unmask the conspiracy. Will his intellect, cunning and bravery (and new-found love of spy-novels) be enough to save himself?

I’ve been a fan of John Grisham’s novels ever since I picked up The Brethren in New York. I burned my way through as many Grisham novels as I could lay my hands on. Most were excellent, gripping and entertaining (The Partner, The Broker, Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief – to name but a few). The occasional one or two weren’t (The Street Lawyer I had difficulty getting into, for example).

The Associate falls somewhere in the middle. Grisham’s writing is still superb, but this novel seriously falls down with the initial blackmail. The ‘evidence’ his blackmailers present Kyle with doesn’t implicate him at all. They even say so! The fact that Kyle agrees to do their bidding was ridiculous, and coloured my opinion of the book for quite a few more chapters. Such a clunky plot device from Grisham is especially disappointing.

After Kyle actually joins the firm in New York (which doesn’t happen that quickly), the novel improves a good deal, as our protagonist starts to think of ways to save himself. The interaction between Kyle and his handler is certainly interesting, as we get to see both sides of the bluffing – each thinks he has the upper hand by knowing something the other doesn’t, but it’s never entirely clear who really is in a better position.

A slower plot to unfold, and with a big problem at the beginning, The Associate is, nevertheless, a good read, and I found myself burning through the pages at a considerable rate, often reading well into the night and wee hours of the morning. There’s plenty of commentary on US legal practice and the life of law-graduates and the hellacious grind they’re put through upon taking a position at one of the mega-firms. The ending was sign-posted quite early on, and was a little obvious, but it’s still a good finish.

Not his best, but certainly still better than a lot of stuff out there. If you love Grisham already, you’ll certainly love this, reminiscent as it is of The Firm (in some ways, anyway).

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