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... another sticks to winning formula

There was no body, just the baffling disappearance of a 17-year-old white cheerleader from a small Texas town. There also was no physical evidence tying anyone to the crime. But it didn't take police long to find their suspect -- a black football player.

The young man confessed to the crime, was convicted and sent to Death Row. But the conviction, readers later learn, was based on a trumped-up confession, a lying snitch, a jilted boyfriend bent on revenge and the findings of a bloodhound named Yogi.

Welcome once again to John Grisham's world, where justice isn't always served, where the elements of our criminal justice system often conspire to get it wrong.

The story starts with a Kansas minister, the Rev. Keith Schroeder, who gets a visit from a drifter and ex-con who claims that he, not Death Row inhabitant Donte Drumm, killed the cheerleader. Then comes the race to rescue Drumm before he can be put to death.

"The Confession" is different, in several respects, from most of the Grisham fare we've grown to love.

First, although the plot -- innocent man facing a possible execution -- remains intriguing, the pace is somewhat slower here. Like a crafty baseball pitcher, Grisham knows how to change speeds, how to vary the pace of his narrative, often building to a page-turning crescendo.

But here, minus a plot twist or two, he packs most of the intrigue and compelling drama into the first 300 pages, leaving the last quarter of the book as almost an anticlimax.

A small point, maybe, but if you read this book, try not to read the three section headings, which ruin any possible plot suspense.

Those objections aside, the man at the literary wheel remains John Grisham, once again treating his fans to a wordsmith's mastery of the language that may be unrivaled in today's crime fiction.

Maybe someone can come up with a better term, but let's call Grisham the true master of gracefully simple cynicism.

He can skewer people of excess, from any walks of life, with the simplest barb.

For example, after 17-year-old Nicole Yarber goes missing, without a trace, Grisham writes, "A psychic appeared, unsolicited, but left town when no one offered to pay." And, "Preachers reworked their sermons to beef up their slant against evil." A Nancy Grace-type cable TV blowhard survived a few questionable on-air stunts; "he was not only standing, but standing at the top of the cable garbage heap." The author even lampoons the victim's mother, a microphone-happy woman "who had embraced victimhood with an enthusiasm that often bordered on the ridiculous."

To his credit, Grisham can be an equal-opportunity offender.

An anti-death-penalty rally features a radical minister who "raised his hands, called for quiet and launched into a flowery prayer in which he beseeched the Almighty to look down upon the poor misguided souls running the State of Texas..."

The masters, it seems, always make it seem so easy.

The usual Grisham themes are here -- the little guy fighting the corrupted system, the imperfections of the criminal justice system, etc.

But make no mistake. This book has more of a point of view than most Grisham books. This becomes an anti-death-penalty piece, written by a man who remains active in the Innocence Project movement.

As one character thought while witnessing the moments before a planned lethal injection on Death Row, "... [H]e was struck by the coldness, the ruthless efficiency, the sanitized neatness of it. It was similar to killing an old dog, a lame horse or a laboratory rat. Who, exactly, gives us the right to kill? If killing is wrong, then why are we allowed to kill?"

Tough questions to answer, especially after seeing the events unfold in this fictional tale.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.

***

The Confession

By John Grisham

Doubleday

418 pages, $28.95

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