Writers Reading

Adventures in Bestsellarland 

Well, if vast sales were a guarantee of quality, John Grisham would be The Big One. I picked up The Judge’s List (2021) on a cross-channel ferry and noted the sales puff for all his works on the back: 350 million copies sold, translated into 45 languages, 10 blockbuster Hollywood film adaptations. I had never read a book by Grisham in my life, but I like to live dangerously. Here is the story of how I came to read a serial killer thriller, and what happened when I did. 


I read one book after another and rarely have more than one on the go.  When I bought The Judge’s List I was in fact busy reading Theodor Fontane’s last masterpiece, Der Stechlin (1898). This is what is commonly called a ’conversation novel’: the narrative is conducted through encounters, dialogue, debate. The theme is the death of a class, that of the Prussian Junkers – that’s the old aristocracy - along with their culture, attitudes and economic base. The tale also charts the demise of an entire society that supposedly went down with the nineteenth century. Stechlin is the name of a lake, a manor house, a family and the main character.  The novel is set in Mark Brandenburg, the country around Berlin, in the mid-1890s. Fontane’s writing is utterly absorbing, but not an easy read. I kept looking up the notes, both to German history and to contemporary events referred to by the characters. The Prussian military is a crucial element in the mix. The significance of titles and the way in which each character should be addressed proved vitally important. I managed to leave my copy of Der Stechlin in the bowels of the ferry, locked in the boot of the car. 

Nothing else for it, but six hours in the company of John Grisham.

I enjoy a good serial killer movie, and so I picked out The Judge’s List from the grim excess of hyperbolic shout lines advertising every lurid paperback. There was nothing literary available on that January night. This is not always the case. Brittany Ferries usually supplies a healthy dose of classics, but on that night the choice was commercial fiction or travel books with maps.  Here comes a spoiler alert: I cannot tell you how Grisham’s book works without revealing both the plot and the denouement. Therefore, if you want to read The Judge’s List for yourself, look away now. 

Whether there are any plausible characters at all in Anglo-American crime fictions is a vexed question. Character is not the point. The tale will be all about the plot. Usually identity is fused with role, as happens in Fairy Tales. The characters in crime fiction work like markers in the text: The Detective, The Villain, The Lawyer, The Victim, The Cops.  Georges Simenon and the traditions of European Noir are, of course, quite different. There, character is all, and usually combines both motive and destiny. The plot will be heavily dowsed in philosophy and metaphysics. 

Characters are often constant and unchanging in traditional English ‘cosy crime’ fictions. Miss Marple, Poirot, and Sherlock Holmes remain essentially the same in every tale. They cannot evolve. They may age but their acumen remains undiminished. Even the dynamic between the detective and the obligatory sidekick – that necessary figure required for exchanges of dialogue, explanation and the odd plot summary - remains stable, constant, unsurprising. The Detective can be killed off when the author has had enough, but most authors are wary of murdering their strongest asset. Conan Doyle sent his hero over the Reichenbach Falls in 1891 and had to pull off a resurrection – behold,  the miraculous return of Sherlock Holmes. Classic detectives, on the whole, rarely age or die. The case to be solved changes, the villain wears a different mask, but it is the plot that matters. 

Modern crime writers concentrate on the characters at work.  The reader too spends a lot of time going through files in offices, staring at screens, waiting in cars outside stakeouts, interrogating witnesses in small windowless rooms and dealing with the odd violent attack. Grisham’s heroine, Lacy Stoltz, who has made a previous appearance in an earlier book, The Whistler (2016), is an investigator for the fictional Board of Judicial Conduct (BJC) in Florida.  The BJC deals with judges who go off the rails. The problem is usually sexism, alcoholism or greed: sometimes the judges start taking backhanders, drinking too much or fiddling with their administrators and secretaries. But the serial killer in Grisham’s novel is Ross Bannick, a respectable judge with no record at all who appears to be above suspicion. 

Your story is only ever as good as your villain. I happen to think this is true, and as villains go Bannick is an interesting one. His motive is revenge. He decides to kill anyone who has ever abused or belittled him, or damaged his professional chances, his reputation or his ego, and to do it in true, classy, serial-killer style with his own signature and trademarks. The novel opens with the daughter of one of his victims – Bannick’s law professor, who took him down a peg or two when he was a know-all law student. The paranoid daughter, a Black American academic, Jeri Crosby, her real name among numerous aliases, tries to engage Lacy Stoltz to investigate the killer Judge she has hunted and stalked for more than two decades. The police are staring at a row of cold cases. Only the daughter possesses the tenacity to avenge her father. The first 60 pages of the novel consist largely of dialogue between Jeri and Lacy. Their conversations set up the plot and establish the dynamic between them: one woman paranoid, terrified, fragile, but determined; the other sceptical, wary, even officiously insistent on the correct procedures. Lacy Stoltz is used to dealing with fantasists and nutters. Jeri Crosby wants her pound of flesh. And so their rapport becomes a gradual persuasion. Lacy is impressed by Jeri Crosby’s refusal to give up, give way, give in. She is the hunter, stalking her father’s predator, just as he stalked his victims.  

Jeri and Bannick have the same obsessive patience. They remain invisible, make careful preparations, watch and wait. In convincing serial killer stories, the victim and the killer always have some kind of relationship, usually the closer the better. And this is one of the reasons why I watched the serial killer movies, which were all about killing women. They were warnings, addressed directly not only to the women in the film but also to the women in the audience. The man who wants to kill you is your brother, your lover, your father, your husband. 

But the primary connection in Grisham’s novel is between the investigator and the complainant. Jeri has circumstantial evidence of a damning nature. All the victims were killed in the same way, blow to the head and strangulation with a trademark rope and a calling card, the double clove hitch knot. And at some moment in their lives they had all crossed the Judge. This was what interested me about Bannick. He is prepared to wait - not just for years, but for decades - to pull off the perfect murder. Each killing is an artwork. Each murder leaves no clear trace. The Judge uses his knowledge of the law, forensics, police work, to perfect his technique. His profession is an ideal cover, his experience gives him access to information and his technical expertise enables him to mask his digital tracks. He is an invisible killer.

Until page 121 - the paperback edition of the novel is 371 pages - Bannick exists only on paper and in our imaginations. I was beginning to have doubts. Does so perfect and careful a killer really exist? Did he really kill all those people? Is in fact, Jeri who is doing all this killing? She knows too much about it. Time to meet Judge Bannick. And then the novel spends a lot of quality time with the Judge. We can probably all understand why he murdered his scoutmaster, the perverted creep who abused him as a child and sent him forth, impotent and resentful, on his lifetime mission of vicious, painstaking killing, and satisfying revenge. Good crime writing will give the reader a lot of information. How to be a meticulous, thorough and therefore uncatchable serial killer is the name of this game. And you need to be a master of digital technology. What will also attract many readers is the fact that the Judge only kills people whom he knows and who, he believes, deserve to die. None of his murders are random, and he only eliminates one person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who therefore counts as collateral damage. He was not on the Judge’s list.  

Grisham’s B-List characters – Lacy’s FBI boyfriend Allie, and Jeri Crosby’s daughter Denise – didn’t convince me. They are simply there as props, irrelevant padding designed to represent the main characters as human, with the same concerns we all have. Should I get married? To this man? How can I protect my daughter? In fact, these characters all seem like an irrelevant pause in the narrative. Not so the heroine’s brother, who actually manages to land a blow on the Judge. But I think that makes the point. Crime fiction is a highly artificial genre. All we want is the plot. Gunther, the feckless avaiator, is absolutely memorable because he takes part in the action. The Judge thought he was overpowering a woman in a pitch-black corridor; he hadn’t reckoned on a fight with someone his own size. Gunther changes the trajectory of the plot.  

The plot, that elusive, essential element in the creation of every gripping narrative and the device that interests me most, is more crucial than anything else in serial killer thrillers.  The plot needs to work like a perfect machine, generating hooks and catches that ensnare both the characters and the readers. The plot is also a spider’s web, the means by which the reader can be ambushed and surprised. If your plot is working, the reader will find that although they didn’t see that particular event coming up they will give themselves a delighted shake and say: “Of course, that’s the only thing that could have happened.  I should have seen that coming.” This is also true of the ending.

And here Grisham does something that is suggestive, clever and genuinely interesting. Our anti-heroine, the obsessed Jeri, cannot give up the investigation even after the Judge has died by his own spectacular hand.  The point of her mission was not only to stop the Judge, but to expose him. And that’s what she goes on to do. I was utterly gripped by the search through the derelict yard of dead cars for the truck used by the Judge in one of his more recent murders. The struggle to open the glove department in the crashed truck and dig out the documents with the incriminating fingerprints is a tour de force. The action of the novel is effectively over. No one is going to be attacked or killed. But Grisham keeps the tension and emotion at fever pitch.  This will be the Big Reveal, and the last snap of the trap. Will the Judge finally be caught? 

Not every reader will be your reader, the one you are writing for, the reader who will devour your book with pleasure and enthusiasm.  And I am certainly not Grisham’s reader. If I want to stop thinking and let someone else do all the work, then I watch television. Commercial fiction offers this bizarre form of relaxation. These books are often simply written-down television. But you can’t beat a damned good plot, bristling with surprise and suspense. And I was drawn to the Judge. He is the only character in the book who is fully realised, filled out, visible, and who still remains mysterious. Every human being, even the fictional ones, is an inexplicable mystery.  And Grisham, who was a criminal lawyer for ten years, knows this well. He cannot quite explain Bannick and doesn’t try to do so. This is the decision of an intelligent novelist and a good lawyer. 

And if anybody can say “I did it my way”, then John Grisham - who turns out a legal thriller every year in time for the holidays - certainly can. He is engagingly honest about the kind of writing that he produces:

Your goal in writing is to write a book every time out that’s really going to satisfy your audience and deliver and entertain, and that’s all I want to do.

(Interview in the New York Times, 17th October 2021) 

Satisfy, deliver, entertain. But these ambitions are not the prerogative solely of writers who produce commercial fiction. High art often does just that too. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens set out to achieve the same things: satisfy, deliver, entertain. 

Was it easier for me to accept this murderous Judge as a person of interest because his motives bear no trace whatsoever of sexual sadism? This is the usual motive in the serial killer movies, where all the killers appear to be deeply inspired by Jack the Ripper. The Judge simply satisfies his personal desire for revenge. Most of us have notched up sufficient entries in The Book of Slights and Insults to keep us going for a lifetime of serial killer murders. Most of us will understand the desire, if not the act. 

On a more memorable occasion Nelly Dean rebukes Heathcliff for taking justice into his own hands.

He leant his two elbows on his knees, and his chin on his hands and remained rapt in dumb meditation. On my inquiring the subject of his thoughts, he answered gravely 'I'm trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don't care how long I wait, if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do!'

'For shame, Heathcliff!' said I. 'It is for God to punish wicked people; we should learn to forgive.'

'No, God won’t have the satisfaction that I shall,' he returned. 

(Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1848), Chapter 7)

Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. And so He may well have said, but Heathcliff replies with perfect logic, to which I can only answer, ‘Amen, Brother, Amen’. The Judge isn’t the only one who has a little list. 

February 2023

All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2024