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Book review: John Grisham's latest, 'The Reckoning,' is good, bad, then good again. But there's still a problem

"THE RECKONING," by John Grisham, Doubleday, 432 pages

SALT LAKE CITY — Reading John Grisham’s latest novel is like riding a roller coaster. Sometimes it dips, sometimes it rises, sometimes you wish you were off it and had opted for fried dough instead.

“The Reckoning” is Grisham’s latest legal thriller, this time bringing readers into a post-World War II environment where beloved farmer Pete Banning murders Dexter Bell, a Mississippi town’s humble pastor, for unclear reasons.

In three parts, Grisham shows us Pete’s trial, his experiences in World War II and what happens to his family after the trial comes to an end. The first part is great and suspenseful, the next part less so and the third part offers a smooth yet unfulfilling ending.

The opening section of the novel — that is to say, Pete's trial — is the most intriguing and thrilling part of the story. Mystery surrounds Pete’s decision to murder the pastor, something in the past that he refuses to tell the jury. In fact, he refuses to defend his actions at all, answering only, “I have nothing to say.” That is the only case the farmer makes for himself, choosing to accept the jury’s decision about the crime, regardless if it means he dies or not. The murderer's motive is an intriguing mystery that instantly grips you. And because the novel starts off with a literal bang, there's no shortage of thrills packed into the first 200 or so pages.

Author John Grisham is shown in New York on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009. Grisham's latest legal thriller is "The Reckoning."
Author John Grisham is shown in New York on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009. Grisham's latest legal thriller is "The Reckoning."
Bebeto Matthews, Associated press

But the second part of the book is a slog through the marshy waters of World War II combat and history. It reads like a history textbook, representing a major slow down for what had all the makings of a thrilling mystery. We learn about Pete’s past in the military, and though the pages are filled with scenes of war, the drama moves too quickly to make you care emotionally about what’s happening to Pete or his combat battalions.

And then there’s the third part, where we see what happens to Pete’s children, Joel and Stella Banning. The entire third part is centered around Stella and Joel figuring out why Pete murdered the pastor and their mother's own mysterious end.

Although the idea of solving the mystery is intriguing, we don’t get an answer about why Pete killed the pastor until the final three pages of the book. And even then, it’s one of those surprising twists that you couldn’t have guessed on your own.

Grisham is a veteran writer when it comes to suspenseful law and weaving a tale around a central mystery. But the ending of this book feels like it was the end result of a cheap trick to keep readers engaged. The question of why Pete Banning killed Dexter Bell remains prevalent throughout the entire book, so much so that you’re willing to chop your way through the second-part slog to get to that answer.

John Grisham's latest legal thriller is "The Reckoning."
John Grisham's latest legal thriller is "The Reckoning."
Penguin Random House

Leaving the book’s central mystery’s resolution to the final pages, however, lessened the value of the entire reading experience. It didn't help that the final scene of the book ended with Joel and Stella having a conversation that amounted to an “oh well” shrug of the shoulders.

But don’t take this as a sign that Grisham is washed up. He still knows how to hold a reader's attention and keep us invested. But he waited too long to reveal why Pete killed the pastor, taking us through a slowly paced wartime narrative that felt more like a history book than a crime novel. While he picks up the narrative again for the final third, grabbing readers attention once again, it’s clear he could have cut away the fat in the second part to help the book flow more easily.

“The Reckoning” is a sign that Grisham still has good stories to tell. He’s not slowing down. But he might do well to consider his pacing and reveal the answer to mysteries a little sooner.

Content advisory: The book contains strong language, references sex, abortion and warfare and mild violence.