The Chamber, John Grisham's fifth legal thriller, relates the harrowing tale of a young lawyer trying desperately to free his grandfather from a date with the gas chamber. Released June 6, 1994, this bestseller met with the same success and public adoration as Grisham's previous works. Critical praise was directed primarily toward the author's supreme story telling skills. John Mortimer of the Sunday Times remarked that "What Grisham can do is to tell us a story". Lawrence J. Goodrich of the Christian Science Monitor agreed: "The story is gripping and pulls the reader along". The novel's strength in immersing the reader in Grisham's world ranked so highly that "readers can almost hear the cogs of justice turning ever faster. . .". In addition, many reviewers applaude Grisham's approaching not only the legal, but also its moral consequences. Ruth Couglin writes: "in addition to suspense, he provides his readers an enormous amount of chilling and often gruesome information about what its like to be on death row". Many critics appreciated the humanity and ethics woven into the story. Despite Sam Cayhall's history with the Ku Klux Klan and his participation in the plot that eventually killed a lawyer and his two young sons, the reader cannot help but empathize. Grisham effectively contrasts the foolish, rebellious youth with the remorseful old man who simply wants to die in peace. The author infers that because of the inordinate amount of time one sits on death row, in many death penalty cases the person convicted is rarely the person executed. Grisham also relates the strained but poignant relationship between Sam and Adam, whose vigor and determination does not correspond with his limited relations with his grandfather. While his impressive tale-telling seemed to be a common ground for reviewers, they differed vastly regarding other aspects of the novel. Some hailed the author's style and characterization, yet others saw the storytelling as the book's only redeeming quality. One author lauded Grisham's "fine writing, believeable acharacters, social comment, courtroom drama. . ." while another criticized: "Grisham may do without poetry, wit, style, and offer only the simplest characterization. . .". Despite these criticisms, reviewers seemed generally impressed with his fifth thriller.
Grisham's public persona is not easy to ascertain. Somewhat of a recluse, the lawyer turned author now divides his time between a 70-acre farm in Oxford, Miss. and a country home near Charlottesville, Va. He shuns interviews and signs books mostly at stores that supported him in his early career. The author presently withholds the sale of film rights for his last two books because "The films add another layer of notoriety and stress and hassle that I don't care to deal with". Though Grisham is consistently out of the public eye, critics still have distinct attitudes toward the novelist. They are playfully cynical toward the rookie whom they believe could write just about anything and have the public devour it and render it a bestseller. In reviewing The Chamber, they often wryly noted that regardless of any criticism, public consumption would flourish. Joe Collins of Booklist remarked "It's a foregone conclusion that Grisham's latest novel will a bestseller. . .". Coughlin summed up many critics resentfulness: ". . .whether I say its swell or not makes no difference. . .the lawyer from Mississippi has reached such a phenominal level of success, he could fill up a book's pages with absolute drivel and still it would sell a zillion copies". Most critics would hardly categorize Grisham with the likes of Faulkner or Hemingway, so their frustration mounts toward a lawyer whose hobby turned him into a bestselling millionaire. Indeed, with the worldwide gross of his novels and their spinoffs easily exceeding one billion dollars, it is no doubt why critics regard the rookie with a bit of cynicism. Despite this doubt and cynicism, Grisham promises "If I didn't have a story, I wouldn't write the book". There is, however, a great disparity between the critics' perception of the Grisham persona and his fans'. The audience holds the author is a much higher regard, responding to his down-to-earth sensibilities. His commitment to privacy fuels his popularity even more, as readers respect his devotion to family and roots (Grisham coaches little-league baseball), as well as his physical appeal (a recent addition to People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World List).
Perhaps the most notable contemporaneous event aiding in the novel's popularity was the Grisham-mania that hit full force at both the bookstores and the box office in conjunction with The Chamber's release. When The Chamber was number one in hardback, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and A Time to Kill were one, two, and three, respectively, in paperback. Also, The Client hit the silver screen at the same time. The Chamber was number five in a string of Grisham bestsellers, and its popularity resulted not only from the well-written, controversial, and thrilling story, but also the simultaneous popularity of other Grisham works. While the novel did not merely ride the coattails of its siblings, it did prosper from their success. Even before The Chamber's release, Grisham's popular past prompted readers to eagerly jump on the John Grisham bandwagon. He'd pumped out a bestseller each year since 1991, and all three had at least a forty week consecutive stretch on the bestseller list.
Grisham's books are often compared with other Grisham books. The Chamber is no exception. One reviewer writes that "Grisham No. 5, simply put, is one of his best". This, however, is only in comparison to his previous works, one which this critic loved, one she liked, and one she deemed "godawful". She also praised the lack of a love story in this novel, "since the romances in Grisham's previous novels have always seemed perfunctory. . .". It is often difficult to render a sound opinion from a reviewer, because each's remarks are gauged with regard to his other works. Grisham himself, however, has compared his books to those of authors such as Scott Turow, Stephen king, Michael Crighton, and Danielle Steel. He has declared "You'd have to say that I've had a profound impact on this genre. . .[Turow] brought all this attention to it with Presumed Innocent. At that point, I took it to a different level, as far as commercial success."
The Chamber enjoyed immense popularity in 1994 and 1995, especially during the former year, when it was released. According to the Publisher's Weekly Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List,the novel spent a toal of twenty weeks on the list, nineteen of those weeks in 1994 and one in 1995. It debuted June 6, 1994 at number one, and finshed out the year at number 15. It remained on the bestseller list during the first week on 1995 and experienced a resurgence of popularity, climbing up to number twelve. The Chamber hit its peak on July 25, 1994. Although his fifth book achieved remarkable success, as The Chamber enjoyed the highest hardcover and audio in-print figures of any of his novels, 1994 saw the author's popularity level off. While his previous three books had at least a 40 week run on the bestseller list, The Chamber spent only nineteen consecutive weeks there. When asked if this could be the result of Grisham-overload, he responded "Well, we've been worried about overexposure for a long time. There was a time about three or four years ago when The Chamber was number one in hardback and The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and A Time to Kill. . .were one, two, and three in paper. And there was a movie out. . ." He admitted to worrying a lot about overexposure. Ironically, his immense success in both books and movies has proven to be a double-edged sword. His proliferation of bestsellers fuels the popularity of his subsequent works, but also creates discontent with his innundated audience.
On October 11, 1996, Universal Pictures released the film version of The Chamber, starring Chris O'Donnell as young lawyer Adam Hall and Gene Hackman as his racist grandfather destined for death row. Dircted by James Foley, the movie did not enjoy as much success as its inspiration. One critic brutalized the film, deeming it "listless, flacid, and utterly professional". Perhaps such cutting remarks proved detrimental to the movie's success. Many critics were afflicted with this Grisham-overload, and the entrance of his work into the realm of film did not elate them. Regardless of favorable book reviews, movies based upon Grisham novels generated poor marks. Often seen as generic and superficial, they employed too many beautiful young actors and stole the grit and humanity from the literature. As Ginia Belafante commented, "With the arrival of every John Grisham thriller comes the inevitable question: 'What exceedingly bankable, cute-as-a-button superstar will take on the role of beleaguered but principled defense cousel, first-year associate or eager law student in sweaty peril?'". Predispositions to a Grisham flick's failure might ultimately have caused The Chamber's. The film's release did not have a notable impact on the book's popularity. It hit its peak in July 1994, and even after the movie's release in October 1996, the book did not return to Publishers Weekly Bestseller List.