Grisham book jaw-dropping murder story

Dave Bolger

Bestselling author John Grisham is well known for his fast-paced courtroom fiction, but with The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, Grisham takes a stab at non-fiction, and the result just might leave the reader speechless.

Innocent focuses mainly on the rape and murder of a cocktail waitress named Debbie Carter and the events that lead up to the conviction of two innocent men, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz.

Williamson was a baseball prospect from the small Oklahoma town of Ada. After a few unimpressive years and sustaining a shoulder injury while playing minor league ball with the Oakland Athletics, Williamson was cut, but he kept dreaming. His mental health began declining, he didn’t work steadily, he lived with his mother and he frequented the town’s bars.

When he became a suspect in the Carter murder case, nobody doubted he was capable of such a crime and when he was convicted and sentenced to death, most people were relieved, the case was closed.

True-crime non-fiction books have an alluring quality simply because the story is an account of events that actually occurred. The problem comes in when they become very dry, usually about halfway through. The writer has to paint a picture of the crime, the city, and all the major players without using too much imagination, but imagination is a writer’s most valuable tool.

Nearly every true-crime story is interesting, but very few are good – Grisham’s Innocent is very good.

In the tradition of Truman Capote, Grisham approaches non-fiction the same way he approaches fiction. The vivid description of the dusty Oklahoma town, the sketching of the everybody-knows-everybody small-town life, the rise and fall of Williamson from being “the next Mickey Mantle” to a convicted rapist and murderer on death row. The ignorance and cruelty of the investigators and attorneys in acquiring evidence and a conviction while ignoring and hiding evidence is nothing less than jaw-dropping.

Parts of the book become saturated with technical facts, but the rapid-fire prose keeps the reader interested. With each bizarre twist, it becomes increasingly more remarkable that this is not a work of fiction.

Innocent could hardly have been better, but some readers may see Grisham’s swift writing style as clumsy or confusing. For the first hundred pages or so, it seems like Grisham is really hurrying to tell the story, to paint the picture of Williamson’s downfall. The chapters and paragraphs are small and compressed and they seem to move erratically, though these are trivial grievances.

While Innocent may not be Grisham’s masterpiece, it is a handbook perfectly outlining how true-crime narrative should be constructed. Innocent offers a terrifying account of injustices in the justice system; it will appall the reader on many different levels. Any fan of true-crime must not pass this one up.

Contact ALL correspondent Dave Bolger at [email protected].

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

By John Grisham

Published by Doubleday

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