The Confession by John Grisham
Days after reading – twice – the closing pages of John Grisham’s gripping new legal thriller about capital punishment in the US, I read in an American newspaper of the October execution of a man in the south-western state of Arizona. The case had drawn an unusual amount of media attention due to a district court’s decision to block the execution because of the possibility that one of the drugs used in the lethal injection might violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court in a ruling of five votes to four, and the execution proceeded, maintaining the US’s controversial position as the only developed nation to employ the death penalty.
The tension that would have been felt by actors on both sides of the real-life case, not to mention by the condemned man, may be shared by readers of The Confession, among the most engaging and thought-provoking fiction Grisham has produced.
The set-up: a paroled man with a string of rape convictions, Travis Boyette, walks into the Kansas office of a Lutheran minister, Keith Schroeder. In a roundabout conversation with sufficient obliqueness to plant lingering doubt in the reader’s mind, Boyette implies that he committed the murder of a Texas high-school cheerleader nine years ago; a crime for which another man is about to be executed. Boyette claims to have terminal brain cancer, and that having recently learned of the imminent execution, he wants to put things right.
The minister’s fact-checking reveals that Boyette appears to be telling the truth about his illness and the fate of the condemned man, Donte Drumm, who was apparently coerced into confessing to the crime. Though no body was ever found, Boyette suggests he will tell Schroeder where it is in a bid to save Drumm’s life.
The drama: for a minister, taking a parolee across state lines is no insignificant act. Boyette goes missing, reappears, changes his story, plays ducks and drakes. Even if the pair finally light out for Texas, and Boyette tells his story to prosecutors and news reporters, they might be out of time.
In Texas, Donte Drumm’s ferocious defence lawyer Robbie Flak is pulling out all the stops to delay execution, but is up against entrenched small-town racism (the victim was white, Drumm is black) and a state governor gunning for higher office based on a tough-on-crime platform. Add to this the Texan passion for capital punishment, soberly revealed by Grisham, and Drumm’s chances of clemency look grim indeed.
Grisham has always been a writer of great confidence and considerable dexterity, and here he is comfortable taking his time to unfurl the story across three acts and more than 400 pages. Like many of his 23 earlier novels, The Confession cries out for screen adaptation, and the characters of Flak, Schroeder and Boyette will prove especially rich pickings for ambitious actors.
Though two-dimensional on the page, Flak is the kind of character that can be memorably inhabited – and several of his encounters with Drumm, whose life has slowly ebbed away in the face of death row’s savage privations, recall the poignancy of the conversations between the two main characters in the excellent capital-punishment film Dead Man Walking.
Regardless of whether Grisham was influenced by this earlier story or simply by the lingering debate, this legal eagle is on song.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz