Selling over sixty million copies of his novels, John Grisham is the bestselling author of the 1990's (Publisher's Weekly). The ability to churn out a bestselling novel each year has made him a household name and the master of the legal thriller. Written in 1999, The Testament is the tenth novel on Grisham's long list of legal blockbusters. The hardback and paperback editions of this novel listed at the #1 and #2 spots, respectively, on Publisher's Weekly's bestsellers list for 1999. The paperback edition of The Testament followed behind Grisham's other 1999 novel The Street Lawyer. Grisham has created an award winning formula for the modern American bestseller. His novels consist of suspenseful plots that take precedence over writing quality and are easily accessible to film adaptation. Grisham's name recognition, the genre of the legal thriller, the adaptation of his novels, and the ability to not only recreate a winning formula but to also expand on it, have produced a long string of bestselling novels. His ability to appeal to millions of readers in conjunction with this formula has helped carve his name in the wall of bestselling authors.
After countless rejections, in June of 1988 Wynwood Press decided to publish Grisham's first novel A Time to Kill. The first printing consisted of merely five thousand copies. Only eleven years later, the first printing of The Testament yielded 2.8 million copies, which has become a standard number for the majority of Grisham's novels. Despite early publishing difficulties, after selling the rights to Grisham's second novel The Firm to Paramount Pictures, he became an overnight success and a household name. Grisham then sold the rights to The Firm to Doubleday, where it spent 47 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and became the bestselling novel of 1991 (randomhouse.com). Under Doubleday, he assumed a fast paced book a year schedule. Doubleday's excellent marketing techniques created The Firm as a runaway bestseller and eventually helped Grisham to sell millions of copies of his many novels. Other publishers, in an effort to not but heads with a guaranteed bestseller, were forced to work their schedule around Doubleday's spring publication of Grisham novels (Barnes & Noble.com). The film adaptations of Grisham's novels have also had a tremendous impact on their record number sales.
Grisham has been nicknamed the "Hurricane" by journalists due to the fact that he has taken Hollywood by storm. Grisham has had seven novels adapted to film: The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, A Time to Kill, The Rainmaker, and The Gingerbread Man. These film adaptations began in 1993 and continued until 1998. Since 1998, there has been a draught of Grisham based films. Although The Testament has not been portrayed on screen, it's suspenseful, twisting plot makes it an excellent candidate for the silver screen. Despite its potential success as a future film, Grisham stated that he had no desire to be involved in the movie productions of his novels (Starkville). For this reason, he has resisted the sale of movie rights to both The Testament and The Street Lawyer. An abundance of criticism, attacking Grisham's lack of character depth and surface level meaning, has caused the writer to shift the nature of his novels. The Testament is a clear example of Grisham's attempt to break the formulaic mold of the legal thriller, a mold which he shaped.
Much like Mario Puzo's The Godfather and Peter Benchley's Jaws, it is clear that Grisham wrote his second novel The Firm to make money. Although he was not in debt, he was searching for financial independence from the practice of law. Subsequent to the failure of A Time to Kill, Grisham followed Writer's Digest guidelines for composing a suspense novel for his second novel The Firm (Barnes & Noble.com). With the success of The Firm, Grisham had created a formula for the bestselling legal thriller. This formula which includes fierce legal battles, interesting plot twists, and David versus Goliath themes has propelled novels such as The Testament to bestseller status. With A Time to Kill and more importantly The Firm, Grisham tapped into the lucrative market of the legal thriller. Based on his previous background as both a criminal defense attorney and a member of Mississippi's House of Representatives, Grisham has a working knowledge of the legal profession. Almost a decade of litigation has inspired a multitude of possible legal plotlines. Since A Time to Kill, Grisham has written nine other legal thrillers, including The Testament. The story of The Testament interweaves a lawyer's journey into the jungles of Brazil with vicious legal battles over the inheritance of a deceased billionaire. Grisham has once again capitalized on the public's interest in the inner workings of the legal system. In an interview with Pageonelit.com Grisham remarked: "One day, and I don't know when, I'll write other types of books. But not in the near future. I'd be foolish to abandon this genre at this time." Grisham recognizes the enormous popularity of the legal genre.
Interesting and suspenseful plot lines are typical characteristics of bestselling novels. In The Testament Grisham includes his regular borage of plot twists. The premise of the story is the search for Rachel Lane, a Christian missionary working in Brazil, who has inherited eleven billion dollars from her illegitimate father, Troy Phelan. The law firm representing Mr. Phelan must honor his will by sending a lawyer, Nate O'Riley, into the jungles of Brazil in search of Rachel Lane. Grisham gives a detailed and riveting account of Nate's voyage into Brazil and the many pitfalls he must overcome. After a difficult journey and a great deal of self realization, Rachel Lane's refusal of the inheritance forces Nate to return to Washington. In Washington, Nate and his law firm devise a trust fund for the inheritance which will be donated to a number of charity organizations. When Nate returns to the jungles of Brazil in search of her signature, he finds that not only has Rachel Lane died of Malaria but she has left a will of her own. Her will constructs a similar trust and appoints Nate O'Riley as executor. Plot twists such as those in The Testament are characteristic of Grisham's bestselling novels. Suspenseful plot lines worked into the legal thriller genre are what make Grisham's novels both instant bestsellers and ripe for film adaptation.
Despite a multitude of bestsellers, Grisham has been careful not to simply recreate his winning formula. In The Testament, Grisham adds the element of Christianity to the legal thriller. The Testament is a piece of literary fiction that goes beyond just entertaining, by raising important questions with inventive form. Rachel Lane is a Christian missionary who has denied materialism in her devotion to God. She is able to help transform Nate O'Riley, a troubled Washington litigator. Nate learns the meaning of friendship, survival, and sacrifice in the jungles of Brazil. This turn towards God, follows in the footsteps of his previous novel The Street Lawyer. Grisham's broadened literary themes received praise from critics. Publisher's Weekly remarked, "Grisham's smart use of the suspense novel to explore questions of being and faith puts him squarely in the footsteps of Dickens and Graham Greene." Grisham's literary successes with The Street Lawyer and The Testament, have given him the freedom to pursue other literary themes. His recent novels The Painted House, which explores themes of experience and growth, and Skipping Christmas, a comedy about the chaos of the Christmas tradition, remain courtroom free. Although in the end, Grisham returns to the success of the courtroom with his 2002 novel The Summons.
Grisham's novels often retell the underdog story of David and Goliath. While The Testament does not fit as neatly as many of Grisham's other novels into this frame, it is still comparable. Although more a tale of spiritual self realization, Nate must overcome the demons of alcoholism and drug abuse that haunt his past. Unlike the other greedy and deceitful lawyers and clients in the novel, Nate is a likable character with common problems. The ability to overcome problems through God's guidance makes his character comparable to the biblical figure David. Another example of the "David and Goliath" theme can be witnessed in Grisham's first novel A Time to Kill. In this novel, a lawyer representing a black man on trial for the murder of his daughters rapists, is able to fight racism in Clanton, Mississippi. This theme is very important because it allows Grisham to express social criticism through his fiction while also giving readers hope and inspiration. Grisham also uses the "David and Goliath" theme to illustrate his contempt for the legal system.
The Testament is a clear example of the modern bestseller. While it contains many of the elements of a bestselling novel, its initial popularity did not stem from the work itself, but instead relied on a previous list of bestselling novels and films. The reader's initial attraction was based on an expectation for yet another bestselling novel. It was thus important for Grisham to be creative in the recreation of his winning formula. By incorporating religious examination into the legal thriller, The Testament stands apart from many of Grisham's other novels. This unique aspect of the novel helped The Testament to sustain its popularity and become another bestseller. In an age characterized by high profile law suits, Johnnie Cochran like lawyers, and countless courtroom television dramas, the legal thriller will remain a bestselling genre. With more students in law school than practicing lawyers and cases such the O.J. Simpson trial commanding the media, America's obsession with the legal profession will only increase in subsequent years. John Grisham has recognized the public's infatuation with law and used it to publish ten bestselling novels. The Testament is no exception to this phenomenon and it is only a matter of time before it begins grossing millions of dollars not only on the book shelves but also at the box office.
*Grisham, John. The Testament. New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999.