Book Review

Sparring Partners

Author:John Grisham

I remember back when 'Have you read The Firm?' was one of the top questions in the early 90's. That was my first introduction to John Grisham, and I just as hurriedly read through his other early works, such as the The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill, The Client, and The Rainmaker. Grisham has written many other books since then (in different genres), but 2022's *Sparring Partners* is my first revisit to Grisham since those earlier decades.

Sparring Partners is the name of a collection of three novellas, Homecoming, Strawberry Moon, and Sparring Partners (where the collection gets its namesake). According to his website, this is Grisham's first time doing a 'collection' of novellas. I'm not surprised that someone as accomplished as Grisham may have other ideas that maybe don't make for full novels, so having an outlet like the Sparring Partners collection at least lets the stories be told.


Homecoming kicks off in the Grisham style I had been familiar with: an everyday family-man lawyer, Jake Brigance, normally hoping for a paying client in his Mississippi town, is visited by a couple who who is delivering a message on behalf of Jake's old friend, Mack Stafford. Mack had mysteriously left his family and friends years ago in the dead of night, supposedly with a boatload of cash, but nobody knows where he got the money, how much money, or where he is now. It turns out Mack is alive and well in Costa Rica, and has invited Jake and his wife, Carla, for a vacation there, so Mack can ask for Jake's help in getting back home.

There is some writing here that throws me off a bit. First, Mack seems to be living like he's heisted a huge amount of money, but when the actual amount is divulged to the reader, it really doesn't equal the extravagance of the lifestyle the Mack character is experiencing. That was my first clue that Grisham likely wrote this story back in the early 90's, late 80's. (There's a part where the University of Memphis was referenced as 'Memphis State', which changed its name in 1994. Additionally, a character is renting an apartment for $200/month - those were the days!). So did Grisham just dust this off and publish it in 2022, or did he write it recently and it just happens to take place a few decades ago? My money is on the former.

Secondly, I'm not sure Grisham knows whether the fictional town of Clanton, MS, is a small town or a large one. On the one hand, it's a small enough town that everyone has heard the gossip in a day's time. On the other hand, it's a big enough town that divorce attorneys are splitting up couples every Monday morning.

Thirdly, I'm constantly being reminded with the writing that this story takes place in the South, sometimes in a very in-your-face manner.

"...There were kegs of cold beer and plenty of barbecue. A bluegrass band played on the porch. Harry Rex's timing was perfect--there was nothing else happening in the county that day--and the crowd was huge. He wanted a redneck party and that's what he got...."

To be fair, the southern US setting is part of the reason I like Grisham, as he knows what aspects of the southern life, and often demonstrates he knows the city streets like a local. Still, some of the writing in this one makes it seem like he's still working on his craft.

It's an enjoyable story with an ending worth discussing with friends.

Strawberry Moon

In Strawberry Moon, we follow the thoughts, discussions, and reminiscence during a Cody Wallace's final hours as a death row inmate. It's a bit more touching and somber story, but a great and quick read. One of the things notable about Cody Wallace is that he is an avid reader of all types of paperback fiction thanks to a penpal who has sent him books while he's been in prison. During a segment of the story, it feels like Grisham is just having fun talking about books he's enjoyed. Also notable is that it takes place back in the 1990's, which leads me to think that's also when this story was first written.

Sparring Partners

The Sparring Partners novella is the last of the three stories included in this book. It's also the most recently written, which is obvious because the characters use texting and cell phones. The 'sparring' partners are two brothers, Rusty and Kirk, who operate under one firm - 'Malloy and Malloy' - but do so as independently as they possibly can. They are rivals just as much as they are partners. The speak with each other so little, that they rely on Diantha, a longtime employee, to be the glue to hold the firm together. Additionally, we learn that Rusty and Kirk's father, who founded the firm, is in prison for killing his wife, whom nobody misses, and he's made an agreement that both boys must continue working together or risk a huge financial penalty. The father has worked out a way to get huge amounts of money waiting on him for when he gets out of prison, but Rusty, Kirk, and Diantha scheme to take it.

I found myself wondering which character is the main character the reader is supposed to be I'm rooting for. We bounce a bit from Rusty to Kirk to Diantha, and while all have their decent qualities, they also are unlikeable in other ways - the two sparring partners more-so than Diantha. I think we end up settling on Diantha, which is fine and it works for this story. Overall, it's a fun read with plenty of wondering who truly has the upper hand from page to page.

In summary

As I'm reading the collection, I'm imagining that Grisham was interested in publishing some new material, but Sparring Partners wasn't long enough (about 123 pages) to be a stand-alone novel, so Grisham and his publishers were able to add Homecoming and Strawberry Moon to the collection. It makes for some easy reads, hitting the right notes that longtime Grisham fans will appreciate.