A number of years ago, I read State of Fear by Michael Crichton, and I was irritated by the obvious slant. The story idea itself was fine, though I found his information on climate change incomplete. Perhaps it was complete at the time of his research. It can take a long time for a book to go from the editor to the consumer. What I didn’t like was that all his liberal characters were one-dimensional cowards and/or idiots, while all his conservative ones were deeply thoughtful, noble, and courageous. I am very much aware of my own biases, and seldom assume myself immune from undue influences there, so I wondered at the time if I would have been as irritated if the tables had been turned. Now, I know, having just finished The Confession, by John Grisham.
Warning: there will be spoilers here.
Here’s the premise—a young man awaits imminent execution for a murder that, not only did he not commit, but that the real killer is trying to take responsibility for. This book is less plot-driven than theme-driven, a focus I happen to appreciate most of the time (hence the book I’m trying to whittle down for my agent, who says it is too didactic). Because of this, the first two-thirds of the book are a mixture of trying to save Donté (the innocent man) and lessons on why the death penalty is racist, expensive, fallible, and ultimately unjust. I happen to agree with all of that. I just found the interjection of these pieces unwieldy and, well, um…didactic. The last third—SPOILER—is devoted to the aftermath when the state discovers it has irrefutably and irrevocably killed the wrong man though it had every opportunity to stop the miscarriage of justice.
I think the book raises excellent points, the very points I believe would make the death penalty morally repulsive to anyone who did any real research on it. I have coached debaters through this topic twice, so I know of whence I speak.
My problem is that Grisham is guilty of the same literary malfeasance as Crighton was. The pro-capital punishment characters are written in such a way that the reader can have no sympathy for them. Even the mother of Nicole (the girl whose murder resulted in the execution) is a horrible person. We feel no sympathy for her when she learns that her relentless pursuit of vengeance and fame has resulted in the death of an innocent man—a teenager like her daughter when the crime occurred. Think how much more powerful the message would have been if we had come to care for Nicole’s mother as much as for Donté’s, if she had been twice, undeservedly, victimized. In the end, the men responsible for the outrage are ruined, but all they care about are their reputations and fortunes. Such people exist. I can see having some characters like that, but could at least one be more complex? Could he have acted with the best intentions? Can we delve into his moral deliberations? You see, I know good people who uphold the death penalty. They will not see themselves in this book, and so will not be moved as they could be. (To be fair, there is brief section about the minister of Nicole’s church grappling with this—like, a paragraph or so.)
In the end, I found both State of Fear and The Confession to be page-turners. They were entertaining, and I’m not sorry I read them. I just like slightly more ambiguous characters. In my books, minor players may be one-dimensional, but if I’m going to spend a lot of time with a character, I want him or her to have some depth. Having said all that, I really liked the minister who is unwittingly dragged into the whole affair. Keith is a very human minister—his own selfish needs and desires often at odds with what he knows is the truly Christian thing to do. He is a good man, but it is seldom easy. I vacillated with him—knew the right thing, but wished he didn’t have to do it. I also unabashedly appreciated the cheap shots at Fox. They deserve them. 🙂