Tuesday 15 June 2010

Review: Theodore Boone by John Grisham

In the small city of Strattenburg, there are many lawyers, and though he's only thirteen years old, Theo Boone thinks he's one of them. Theo knows every judge, policeman, court clerk - and a lot about the law. He dreams of being a great trial lawyer, of a life in the courtroom.

But Theo finds himself in court much sooner than he expected. Because he knows so much - maybe too much - he is suddenly dragged into the middle of a sensational murder trial. A cold-blooded killer is about to go free, and only Theo knows the truth.

The stakes are high, but Theo won't stop until justice is served.

John Grisham has allegedly sold somewhere in the region of 250 million books  worldwide, but it would appear that this is not enough for him and he now wants to break into the children's market as well. It is a long time since I read a John Grisham adult novel as I am not a huge fan of legal thrillers, although I do recall enjoying The Pelican Brief and The Firm. If I remember correctly, they were both tightly plotted thrillers with a great deal of suspense, and considering his reputation as an author I was expecting something pretty similar in Theodore Boone. How wrong could I be?

On the Amazon page for this book there is a quote from the Daily Express that reads "Nobody does legal fiction better"; unfortunately, based on this book the same cannot be said about children's fiction. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that Mr Grisham has not read any of the competition in preparation for entering this market - a quick read of the likes of Robert Muchamore, M.G. Harris or Anthony Horowitz would have shown him exactly how to approach writing for this very demanding audience. Instead we have a book that in many ways seems very old fashioned, almost as if the author has followed the style of books he may have enjoyed as a kid.

First up in the evidence for the prosecution is the author's main character, the titular Theodore Boone. This boy is just far too nice, so much so that most children reading this will struggle to relate to his character. In fact I think you would have to search hard to find many kids who would actually want to be like him as in most children's minds being such a goody-goody just isn't cool. It is a sad fact but in the schools where I have taught a boy such as Theodore would have been bullied and teased about his passion for all things legal, not revered for his knowledge and understanding of the law as he is by his peers once the town's big murder trial kicks off. I appreciate that in many stories for this age group the main character tends to be a little on the plain side, especially in comparison with the villains whose characters tend to be more dramatic and meaty. However, Theo's character is just a little plain, it is boringly bland, and unfortunately we do not have an over-the-top villain in this book to offset this. Yes, there is the mysterious Omar Cheepe, freelance "trouble shooter" for the prosecution team, but all we get from him is sinister looks and very little action at all; so much more could have been done with this character.

Onto Exhibit Number 2 - the pace. I appreciate that the author has to introduce a new main character, a host of secondary characters, set the scene, etc. but the opening third of this book is just far too slow. OK, so it isn't an action thriller as written by the authors I mentioned earlier, but any good author for children or young adults will tell you that if you don't grab their attention and keep it in the opening chapters of a book then you may as well wave goodbye to a sizeable pencentage of those readers.  To be fair, once e have persevered through the first 90 or so pages the pace and tension does increase, and I started to think that maybe I had been a little impatient with Mr Grisham. However, this just set me up for even greater disappointment as the ending of the book is possibly one of the worst I have read in years; so poor in that I actually checked whether the book was missing some pages. Either this was the author trying to make the reader decide how the court case eventually panned out or it is a blatant attempt to set the story up for a sequel. Now I'm not one of these readers who detests cliffhanger book endings, and I'm happy to wait for the next instalment, but the way this book ends just left me feeling flat and disappointed.

And finally, Exhibit Number 3 - where is the peril? Where are the scenes that test Theodore in ways he has never been tested before? Where are the moments that have the reader sitting on the edge of their seat, nervous for the safety of the book's hero? For a man who has built a career and reputation on the writing of books with great plot Mr Grisham seems to have assumed that all the essential elements of a good book for adults do not apply to the younger market, and in a world where horror fiction is very popular with this age group Mr Grisham appears to have gone out of his way not to scare his readers even a little.

In the book's defence however, there are a couple of positive points. Firstly, Theo has to make a number of moral decisions through the book, and he does this without coming across all moralistic. Many children don't warm to "in your face" moralising in their stories and I feel that Mr Grisham just about manages to avoid this. Secondly, this being a legal 'thriller', he was always going to have to explain some fairly complexed legal concepts and procedures to his young audience. Although in my opinion it is a little contrived, the use of Theo explaining the ins-and-outs of the murder trial to his classmates worked very well for me, and I feel that readers of 11+ would find some of these explanations very interesting. Mr Grisham obviously hs a passion for the american legal system, and wants to share this with a new generation of readers, and I am sure there will be a number of children who will be inspired to find out a little more about this subject; it is just a shame that they have to endure a weak story in the process.

All in all then a great disappointment from such a popular author for adults. This book may appeal to confident readers in the 9+ age group, but older readers will get bored quite quickly, unless they are legal obsessives like Theodore Boone himself. The book is published in hardback by Hodder and is available to by now.


  1. Thanks for the review! I've had my doubts about this one. I showed the book trailer to my students (7th graders) and they laughed. They were not impressed at all. And then the tag line at the end was "half the man, twice the lawyer". They really lost it then!

  2. can't say i support your opinions. i read this book to my children (11, 9 & 5) they are incredible readers, well beyond their ages & thoroughly enjoyed it, as did i. i read it to them to be sure it was appropriate material for young readers. it's a shame you think that being a "goody goody" is plain and boring. maybe if more people encouraged and promoted the "goody goody" character and morals our disfunctional culture wouldn't be such a disappointment. we loved the book and are hoping he continues writing fiction for young readers.

  3. I read this book over a weeks vacation. It was enjoyable from start to finish. If you enjoy Grisham, you'll enjoy this new hero, no matter your age. I know I did.