Juvenile Justice: Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer by John Grisham
Theo Boone knew of no other kid who hung around a law office every day after school. Most of his friends were playing baseball or soccer, or hanging around the house waiting on dinner. And there he was sitting in a dark law library pondering the events of the past hour.
He loved the place--the rich smell of worn leather and old rugs and dusty law books. The air of importance.
How could it be that he, Theodore Boone, of all the people in Strattenburg, knew the truth about the Duffy murder?
Starry-eyed young athletes whose field of daydreams has them becoming football or basketball or baseball greats abound in children's lit. There are even some notable kid detectives who dream of following Sherlock into great careers in crime-solving. But a boy barrister wannabe who longs for a life in a dusty law library and a role in the thick of courtroom drama?
Apparently not the impossible dream for John Grisham, best-selling author of legal thrillers, who has turned his considerable storytelling talents to writing for the children's and young adult market in his latest Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer (Dutton, 2010).
Theo Boone is the only son of two workaholic lawyers, one who maintains his own "of-counsel" office in his parents' building and already has built up a substantial, if non-paying, clientele among his junior high friends who need legal advice. When a notorious murder trial begins in the local courthouse, Theo is in jurisprudence paradise, even negotiating an all-day field trip with family friend Judge Gantry for his government class to observe the opening day of the proceedings. The kids all agree that the defendant, admittedly in financial straits, is guilty of the strangulation death of his wife to collect her million-dollar insurance policy, but there is no physical evidence at the site and the accused was seen playing golf alone at the time of the assault at the nearby Waverly Creek course. Experienced court watcher Theo has to point out that the prosecutor's case is weak and that defendant Peter Duffy will likely walk.
But then classmate Julio Pena approaches Theo and privately confides that his cousin, an illegal alien groundskeeper at the Waverly golf court, is sure that he saw Duffy speed up on a cart, carefully draw on both golfing gloves, enter the murder house and leave hastily ten minutes later.
Julio begs Theo to intervene with his friend Judge Gantry to stop the murderer from going free without revealing the cousin's identity. But Theo knows that with the trial already moving swiftly to the deliberative phase, he is going to have to have more definitive evidence before Judge Gantry will declare a mistrial. Torn between his promise to Julio to protect his cousin from jailing and deportation and his own responsibility to avert a grievous miscarriage of justice, Theo realizes that this time he must make a judicious decision that will change several lives.
Grisham's forte is, of course, fast-paced, page-turning storytelling which incorporates both investigation and courtroom drama into the plot, and the best-selling author uses this same formula to good effect in his first effort directed to the kid marketplace. Unlike his 2005 adult thriller, The Client, which featured a young fugitive as a principal character, however, this novel falls a little short in full character development. Major and minor characters are sketched out in typically skillful but broad strokes, with Theo's parents drawn pretty much to type and the middle school milieu given fairly short shrift. In this regard John Grisham could take some valuable lessons from children's writers, who often show great talent for building page-turning plots around believable young characters of some depth and complexity--especially from his fellow adult mystery authors, notably Robert B. Parker (Edenville Owls and The Boxer and the Spy) and the Newbery-winning Carl Hiaasen (Hoot, Flush, and Scat), whose crossover ventures into children's literature have been memorable.
Still a young hero who specializes in one of the thinking professions is a promisingly novel role model for middle readers, and Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer shows real potential as an ongoing series hero if John Grisham chooses to focus his lucrative storytelling skills toward the young adult genre. With the late Robert B. Parker regrettably out of the game and the best-selling Harry Potter and Percy Jackson as powerful boy protagonists pulling in the readers, it's a fertile field with a long tail of sales just waiting for Grisham to jump in with both feet.