Picks and Pans Review: The Chamber

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John Grisham

Though Grisham may never again concoct a thriller as heart-thumping as The Firm, his skills as a storyteller have grown with each book. The Chamber, set on Mississippi's death row, is a dark and thoughtful tale pulsing with moral uncertainties.

When Adam Hall, a 26-year-old rookie at the Chicago firm of Kravitz & Bane, fights to take on the pro bono case of Sam Cayhall, 69, it is for purely personal reasons. Cayhall, convicted in the KKK bombing that killed a Greenville, Miss., lawyer and his 5-year-old twin sons, is Adam's grandfather. Until Hall's visit to Parchman Penitentiary's maximum-security unit, the two had no contact; indeed Sam was the family's nastiest secret.

Arrogant and angry, Hall sets out to save Sam from the gas chamber and to make sense of the Cayhalls' legacy of hatred. He uncovers more than he wants and softens as he does so.

Grisham is at his best describing the tedium of the maximum-security unit, where inmates sleep 16 hours a day and "the death of one could mean the death of all." But he has the good sense to stay away from tender reconciliations and cheap explanations. Sam—with his greasy ponytail, his waning-day request for Eskimo Pies, his matter-of-fact confession of three other murders—remains inscrutable. The action of The Chamber is in Adam's last-minute legal battle, but the story is in its struggling, tormented, too-human characters. (Doubleday, $24.95)

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