Teenage Heroics

The Fugitive: John Grisham

Teenager Theodore Boon from small town Strattenburg is on his maiden trip to Washington DC along with his fellow 8th graders. It is a school trip and they are taking in all the sights: Capitol Hill, Ford’s Theatre and the Smithsonian. While travelling on a subway train he notices a face behind a newspaper and he thinks it belongs to  Pete Duffy,  the man who was 7th on FBI’s ten most wanted men. He was accused of murdering his wife and was being tried in a court in Strattenburg – a trial that Theo had attended. Duffy escaped conviction when judge Gantry declared a mistrial and vanished from town in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Theo does not get off at the scheduled station along with his schoolmates and stays on to video Duffy on his cellphone. He also manages to send the video clip to his maverick uncle Ike asking for his advice on what should he do next.

So starts the drama in John Grisham’s crime thriller for young readers. For those of you familiar with the author’s crime fiction set in the world of lawyers and legal wrangles, this one too veers towards the same terrain as the story progresses. Incidentally, Theo’s both parents are lawyers and he himself aspires to be one.

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Theo’s adventure continues as he accompanies the FBI in trying to nab Pete Duffy in Washington DC.  But the real tension begins only when Duffy is brought back to Strattenburg and his retrial begins. It is only now that Theo is close enough to any kind of danger. For one, Duffy and his henchmen are beginning to suspect that Theo might have been the one who alerted the police about his presence in Washington DC. Also, he had been instrumental in getting Bobby Escobar, an ‘undocumented worker’ from El Salvador to testify as the only eye witness in the case. Bobby used to work on the golf course where Duffy played and he is only one who had seen Duffy leave the grounds and enter his house minutes before the murder. So Bobby’s testimony was crucial for a conviction this time too.  What could Duffy’s henchmen do to scuttle the trial? And how could Theo, with the help of his supportive family, outsmart them?

It’s not a very complex story and the trajectory of the narrative is fairly predictable. For adult readers it is an easy, undemanding read and there might be some interest in the description of the trial and the court proceedings. For young readers however the book might hold some additional charm because of the empathy it can create in them for the protagonist. Grisham captures the confusions of a teenage mind caught in a situation like this quite well.  One moment he is quite excited and gung ho, in the next, he is wondering why he got involved in all this. There is the obvious pleasure in bunking school to attend court, his awkwardness in dealing with his parents with relation to the case, his concern for Bobby and his doubts about how much he can share with his school friends.

As is to be expected, Grisham really comes to his own in the legal part of the narrative. While observing Judge Gantry at work, Theo wonders if he would ever like to be in his place, because every judge faces a situation every now and then where his heart says a person is guilty but the evidence presented says otherwise.  It is humbling to realize that the courts are designed not to punish the guilty but to punish those who can be proven guilty.  The whole tension of the narrative is about how to back your instinct with evidence and how to prove what you believe. When this is seen from an adolescent’s perspective it can result in a fairly stimulating fiction for young readers.

(This was originally published in the Sunday Book Review section of the Deccan Herald.)                                                                                                                                                                                    

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