Review: John Grisham takes on death penalty in dark, brilliant fashion in 'The Confession'

The Confession is the kind of grab-a-reader-by-the-shoulders suspense story that demands to be inhaled as quickly as possible. But it's also a superb work of social criticism in the literary troublemaker tradition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The novel's target — the death penalty and its casualties — derives from John Grisham's other life as activist and board member for the Innocence Project, which fights to exonerate prisoners it deems wrongfully convicted.

For more than a decade, in his novels and on editorial pages, Grisham has ruminated over the efficacy and morality of the death penalty. The Confession bangs the gavel and issues a clear verdict. Whatever your politics, don't read this book if you just want to kick back and relax.

The novel opens with a classic noir situation in which an ordinary Joe finds himself suddenly thrust into a nightmare. Our flummoxed hero is the Rev. Keith Schroeder, pastor of a Lutheran church in Topeka, Kan., who is paid a visit by a monster. Travis Boyette is a felon out on parole, whose rap sheet for sexual assault is as long as a roll of yellow crime scene tape. Boyette tells Schroeder that he's dying of a brain tumor and that he (maybe) wants to confess to the abduction, rape and murder of Nicole Yarber, a high school cheerleader from the town of Slone, Texas, who disappeared almost 10 years ago.

If Schroeder drives Boyette to Slone (and thus becomes his accomplice in breaking parole) Boyette will confess. By the time the two pile into the pastor's clunker for the road trip from hell, speed is of the essence. In less than 24 hours, Donte Drumm, a former classmate of Nicole's, will be put to death for a murder he didn't commit.

There are plenty of sickening twists to come. At one point, Schroeder asks himself whether he would approve of the death penalty if Boyette, instead of Drumm, were scheduled to receive a lethal injection. By the time you finish reading, you may well find that your answer, like the pastor's, is different from the one you would have given before this darkly brilliant narrative began.

The Confession

By John Grisham

Doubleday, 418 pages, $28.95

Review: John Grisham takes on death penalty in dark, brilliant fashion in 'The Confession' 11/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 27, 2010 3:30am]

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