Known for his page-turning investigations of corruption and morality in the criminal justice system, John Grisham has left an indelible mark on the legal thriller landscape. Born in Arkansas in 1955, he spent a decade as a small-town lawyer – along with a seven-year stint serving in the Mississippi House of Representatives – before becoming a literary sensation in the early ’90s.

Grisham’s breakthrough came with his second novel, The Firm, which spent 47 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Now one of the world’s most widely read contemporary authors, his collective works – including A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, and The Client – have sold over 300 million copies. Beyond his writing, Grisham’s been a dedicated advocate for criminal justice reform, sitting on the board of The Innocence Project and consistently voicing his opposition to capital punishment.

In a late 2020 interview with Goodreads, Grisham spoke on turning to fiction for escape amid the stress of early Covid:

“Back in the spring, during the first days of the pandemic, the shock and fear were disorienting. I found it difficult to concentrate when reading anything. So I wrote, as I usually do from January to July, and the writing kept me away from the news. It’s a lonely business anyway. There’s no one else in the room when I work, and I’ve grown accustomed to the isolation. When I write I try to avoid reading fiction. I read only good books by good writers, and invariably I’ll catch myself imitating them when I write. With time, though, I found that the worlds created by other writers were wonderful diversions from the mess we’re in. So, I returned to my old favorites.”

From Cajun crime families to south Brooklyn street dealers, Grisham recommended a slew of irresistible stories of justice, mercy and crime-solving. Explore his reading list below, and complement with the bookshelves of David Baldacci, James Patterson, Lee Child and Stephen King.

John Grisham’s Reading List

A Private Cathedral by James Lee Burke

“David Robicheaux is one of the most interesting detectives in contemporary fiction. Here, he’s back for the 23rd time and he takes on two Cajun crime families that try unsuccessfully to share territory. The two families have more internal problems than most. One has even sunk so low as to traffic humans. Only James Lee Burke has the voice to examine ancient curses and superstitions in the complex world of Cajun Country.” -JG

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

“In this wild and roaring novel, James brings together an unforgettable collection of characters from the housing projects of south Brooklyn. When the anti-hero, a man called Sportcoat, shoots and kills the neighborhood’s favorite drug dealer, street life spins out of control.” -JG

The Last Trial by Scott Turow

“Sandy Stern, the fabulous criminal defense we first met in Presumed Innocent, is now 85 years old and on the brink of retirement. He takes his last case, the defense of an old friend accused of insider trading, fraud, and murder. Scott is still the master of the legal thriller, and his courtroom scenes have no equals.” -JG

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny

“A murder in Paris is a guaranteed hook. The hero, Armand Gamache, is in Paris with his family awaiting the birth of his grandchild when his godfather is hit in a deliberate attempt to kill. Gamache is drawn into the crime and must solve it.  The nightmare engulfs his entire family and before long he’s not sure who to trust. With the City of Light as the backdrop every page is a delight.” -JG

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (also rec’d by Anita Hill, Brené Brown & Richard Branson)

“This is a true story that was published several years ago, but I thoroughly enjoyed it for the third time. Bryan left Harvard Law School, turned down the big money, and instead went to Alabama and founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to defending the poor and wrongfully convicted. This is a fascinating account of his early years and his grit and determination to fight injustice.” -JG

In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on Serena by Ron Rash

“This is a collection of ten stories, one of them a novella. Two, Baptism and Neighbors, were published previously to great acclaim. In the novella, Ron brings back his most famous character, Serena, from his fine novel of the same name published in 2008.” -JG

A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin

“John Rebus, the hero in many of Ian’s books, is getting old and even crankier. He’s trying to give up booze and cigarettes, but he can’t stay out of trouble. The partner of his daughter, Samantha, goes missing, and of course Rebus is soon up to his ears in solving the crime.” -JG

(via Goodreads; photo by Ryan Pfluger)

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Categories: Writers

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