John Grisham made his name with legal thrillers in which courtroom drama and legal shenanigans played an integral role in the story telling. In recent times, his books have tended to have a legal angle but are less about the cut and thrust and more about the legal ecosystem and the processes around it. His latest book, The Boys From Biloxi is more of the latter type, but while there are lawyers and court cases, this is far away from a legal thriller. The Boys from Biloxi is more of a piece of historical fiction, a story about a particular place in time, that happens to have a couple of lawyers in it.
The book opens with the titular boys – Hugh Malco and Keith Rudy, both third generation children of Eastern European immigrants who grew up in the migrant community of The Point in Biloxi Mississippi, tearing it up as baseballers for their local teams. Before long, Grisham is detailing the family histories of the two. The Malcos made good through becoming integral with Biloxi’s criminal side – alcohol, prostitution and gambling – and Hugh’s father Lance has become a local crimelord, while Keith’s father Jesse was convinced to go into law. The book then is story of Jesse’s, and later Keith’s, pursuit of corruption and the Malco’s machinations to avoid the law. And, yes, there is a bit of courtroom action along the way, but while it is interesting very little of it can be considered dramatic.
There is an interesting history here. Biloxi, similar to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, was a place were vice thrived so Grisham gets to dig into the rise and maintenance of organised crime and the legal and political moves to either protect or shut down the offenders. There is a destructive hurricane that has more than just a physical impact on the place and a few political battles as Jesse tries to run for the position of District Attorney. But the narrative struggles to rise above a recitation of that history with some colourful characters thrown in.
With forty books under his belt, it is clear that Grisham is born story teller. But in The Boys from Biloxi it never feels more than anything but this. It is all telling with very little showing. The book has the feel of someone telling the reader a story, taking them down various by-ways, dropping in on particular characters and families, regaling them with backstory and historical tidbits. And Grisham’s intense focus on the details of the criminal investigations, while interesting, takes the air out of any tension the tale. So while The Boys from Biloxi is an often interesting story, it is never particularly engaging and certainly never thrilling.