Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)
Series: Standalone/Short Story
Length: 306 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In the mood for more legal thriller awesomeness from the mind of legendary author John Grisham? Then make sure to grab a copy of his new short story collection, Sparring Partners.
John Grisham is an author who needs very little introduction, especially after dominating the thriller field for over 30 years. However, I must admit that I only recently checked out his work with the 2021 book, The Judge’s List. The Judge’s List was an extremely captivating novel that saw a determined investigator dive into allegations that a sitting judge was also a devious serial killer. I really enjoyed this fantastic book and it definitely convinced me that I needed to read more of Grisham’s books. Well, I recently got the opportunity to do so when I picked up a copy of Grisham’s latest release, the short story collection Sparring Partners.
Sparring Partners is an intriguing book that contains three of Grisham’s compelling short stories. Made up of Homecoming, Strawberry Moon and the story Sparring Partners, this collection was an awesome and fun read that will really appeal to established Grisham fans. I personally had a great time with it, and I ended up getting through it in three short intervals, knocking off one story at a time. All three stories are quite entertaining in their own right, and together they prove to be an excellent and awesome exploration of Grisham’s style and love of the legal thriller.
The first of these stories is Homecoming, which takes the reader back to Ford County, which has served as the fictional setting of many of Grisham’s novels. This story follows a small group of lawyers who find themselves in a unique situation when a disgraced former colleague returns to the fold. Homecoming starts when small-time lawyer Jake Brigance suddenly receives a letter from long-lost friend and fellow lawyer Mack Stafford. Years ago, Mack suddenly and unexpectantly fell off the grid, taking a stack of money from his clients and vanishing to parts unknown. Considered a legend by the local legal community, Mack left behind a wife and two kids, and no one has ever understood the reasons for his disappearance. Now, Mack is determined to return to Ford County and wants Jake and his friend Harry Rex Vonner to help navigate the waiting legal difficulties. But as Jake and Harry work to secure Mack’s return, some members of Ford County are less than eager to see him come back and will ensure that retribution is waiting for him if he does.
Now I must admit that the first entry in this book is probably the weakest, as Homecoming does not have the most gripping narrative of the three short stories in Sparring Partners, mainly due to its low stakes. However, it still proves to be a very compelling and interesting narrative that sees a disgraced fugitive lawyer who went through a major mid-life crisis attempt to return to the scene of the crime. Loaded with characters with big personalities, this proves to be a very entertaining entry, and I enjoyed the unique and character-driven narrative that it contained. Grisham provides some intriguing insights into small-town lawyering, while also taking the time to dive into some of the more significant characters. There is a great focus on the character of Mack, especially around why he did what he did, and I really enjoyed the moving moments that looked at the impact his actions had on his family. However, I did think that the story, while fast paced and interesting, was a bit bland and it never really went anywhere. Still, this was a great introduction to the sort of stories you can expect in Sparring Partners and I had a wonderful time reading it.
The next entry in Sparring Partners is the powerful and intimate story, Strawberry Moon. Set inside a death row of a prison, Strawberry Moon follows Cody Wallace, a young inmate with only three hours left until his execution. Waiting for his final moments while his lawyer tries and fails to save him, Cody reminisces on his life and the poor choices, tragedies, and an unfair system that led him there. But as the last minutes of his life tick away before him, Cody has just one request to the guards around him, one that will make all the difference in the world to him.
Strawberry Moon was the most powerful and heartbreaking of all the three stories contained within Sparring Partners and it serves as the emotional heart of the entire volume. Grisham paints a grim and realistic picture of a young man who is about to be executed, by examining this remarkable figure’s remaining three hours. Grisham has produced a deeply compelling and concise narrative that reader will swiftly get drawn into. The story of Cody Wallace is beyond tragic, and the slow reveal of what he did and why he is about to die really gets to you, especially as it is interposed with scenes from his current existence and mentality, which has resulted in spending half his life in death row. Watching Cody take pleasure in some of the little things he has as he waits to die is extremely moving, as are his final interactions with some of the more important people in his life, even if they are only passing acquaintances. This story also serves as a rather blistering indictment of the death penalty system, and Grisham really got his point across extremely well, showing a mostly innocent person get killed for reasons outside of his control. Easily the best of the three stories contained within Sparring Partners, I had an incredible time with Strawberry Moon, and you will get hit hard in the feels when you read this one.
The final story is the amusing and fast-paced story Sparring Partners, which shares the name of the volume. Sparring Partners follows the unusual firm of Malloy & Malloy, a storied, family-operated law firm that is going through its greatest challenge. With the Malloy family patriarch currently in prison for murder, the two remaining Malloy lawyers, brothers Kirk and Rusty, attempt to manage the firm in his stead. However, the two brothers are polar opposites of each other and have very different ideas about how the firm should be run. With their feud reaching an all-time high, the firm is in dire straits, and only their neutral colleague, Diantha Bradshaw, seems capable of saving it from ruin. But Diantha has very different plans, and the firm of Malloy & Malloy may be in some real trouble.
This final story is a great entry as well, and it is definitely the most entertaining piece in the entire book. Following a law firm in crisis, this was a fantastic and fun blend of legal thriller and family drama, as the entire lawyer family goes at each other trying to win. Grisham sets the entire scenario up extremely well and shows the multiple conflicts, manipulations and twists in an awesome way. None of the characters in this story are likeable, and it proves quite enjoyable to watch them fight and bicker throughout Sparring Partners, especially as many of them get what they deserve at the end. While this entry did feature an extremely convoluted murder and investigation, which was a bit silly, there were a lot of good elements in Sparring Partners, and I had an awesome time getting through it. A fantastic concluding story for this excellent book!
Overall, Sparring Partners was an interesting read to get through, and I quite enjoyed the various snapshots into Grisham’s imagination and writing style. All three stories have some excellent merits, and while they aren’t the author’s best work they were very entertaining and compelling. I loved the mixture of legal scenarios and interesting characters featured within this book, and Grisham’s ability to craft together a concise story even in shortform was on full display. While Sparring Partners is very accessible to readers unfamiliar to Grisham’s previous works, this is probably best enjoyed by those fans of the author who are hankering for more of his unique stories in between books. I had a great time reading it and it gave me some more insights into an author I am still not amazingly familiar with.