Moving slowly toward the gas chamber

June 13, 1994|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

John Grisham's new novel may keep you awake nights, but it won't be because of the story's suspense. Compared to the run-rabbit-run pacing of "The Firm," "The Pelican Brief" and "The Client," "The Chamber" has all the forward action of a non-ninja turtle.

Still, the book's subject matter may disturb sleep. The title refers to the gas chamber, and much of the story is concerned with how the state of Mississippi goes about executing convicted criminals, from testing the gas on a rabbit the night before an execution to smearing petroleum jelly on the chamber's windows to prevent seepage.

Sam Cayhall has been on death row at the prison known simply as Parchman since 1981, and readers learn how he got there in the three quick chapters that begin the book. In 1967 in Greenville, Miss., a bomb goes off in the law offices of civil rights lawyer and activist Marvin Kramer, maiming Kramer and killing pTC his 5-year-old twin sons.

Sam, a middle-age farmer and known "Klucker" -- a member of the Ku Klux Klan -- is twice tried for the crime but both trials result in hung juries. Twelve years later, a politically ambitious young district attorney reopens the case, persuades another Klan member to testify against Sam, and wins a conviction. Sam heads for Parchman's maximum security unit and, over the next decade, files one appeal after another.

When a young lawyer in Chicago volunteers to take on the case, Sam is just four weeks away from the gas chamber. The twist is that Sam's new lawyer, Adam Hall, is also his long-lost grandson, whom he hasn't seen since Adam was a toddler. By the way, the governor of Mississippi, the man with the power to grant clemency to Sam, is none other than that district attorney who put him away back in '81.

You may think I'm spilling the beans, but Mr. Grisham pretty much empties the sack in the first 30 pages. The next 450 are taken up with Adam and Sam renewing their relationship, Adam filing the "gangplank" appeals that may yet save Sam's life, Adam trying to come to terms with his tortured family history, and Sam marking down the days on the calendar.

Along with the morbidly fascinating details of life on death row, there are a few little subplots, including one starring a Klansman turned neo-Nazi who knows quite a bit about the Greenville bombing and another featuring Adam's alcoholic Aunt Lee in Memphis. But don't go looking for any of those dramatic chase scenes found in Mr. Grisham's previous thrillers. What suspense "The Chamber" engenders basically gets down to whether or not Sam is going to meet his maker with the assistance of the state of Mississippi.

In a way, Mr. Grisham deserves credit for not turning out another replica of "The Firm." "The Chamber" has more in common with his first novel (and reportedly his favorite), "A Time to Kill," which also tackled some morally ambiguous issues.

In fact, there's a sly wink to the events in that book in "The Chamber" when Adam and Lee visit their Mississippi hometown, which is also the setting for "A Time to Kill." Lee then tells Adam of the famous 1984 murder trial of Carl Lee Hailey. "He was a black man who shot and killed two rednecks who'd raped his little daughter."

But while "The Chamber" is more thoughtful and provocative than Mr. Grisham's thrillers, it also points up his deficiencies as a novelist. When a story is racing along at high speed, one can more easily ignore a lack of character development or pedestrian writing. "The Chamber's" Sam is an interesting old cuss, but other characters, including Adam, remain largely collections of characteristics. And a clunker of a sentence such as, "This nightmare will never end, Adam thought," can stop even a slow-moving story in its tracks.

But plotting remains the book's main problem. By killing most of the suspense from "The Chamber" early on, Mr. Grisham essentially erects a scaffold.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Chamber"

Author: John Grisham

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 486 pages, $24.95

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