Picks and Pans Review: The Pelican Brief

updated 03/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

by John Grisham

It was a measure of Grisham's achievement with his previous blockbuster novel, The Firm, that it was impossible to read without speculating about the cinematic possibilities. "Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner for the main character," you'd think to yourself. "And how about Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio for his wife and maybe Gene Hackman for...." Readers will be similarly tempted with The Pelican Brief, which is stronger on character than The Firm but a bit shakier and less compelling on plot.

When two Supreme Court Justices—the ultraliberal, aging Abraham Rosenberg and sometimes ultraconservative, homosexual Glenn Jensen—are murdered within hours of each other, the nation is in a swivet and the FBI in a panic. Meanwhile, the President, a golf-playing boob, is concerned about his putting, his popularity—and the swift confirmation of his choice of new justices. The brains around the Beltway are clueless about the assassinations, which have been quick, tidy and trace-less, clearly the work of professionals.

But Darby Shaw, a lissome second-year law student at Tulane, thinks she has got the killings figured out. As an exercise, she has written a carefully researched though admittedly speculative brief, pinpointing a very obscure oil baron bent on destroying Louisiana's fragile marshlands. When the brief falls into the wrong hands, Shaw, aided by a Washington Post reporter, has to run for her life.

Grisham is not particularly deft with dialogue, and he should not bother with romantic scenes; he couldn't handle them convincingly in The Firm and he hasn't honed his skills in The Pelican Brief. But he has created a tough-minded, memorable character in Darby Shaw, and there is a propulsiveness to Grisham's narrative that keeps the pages turning briskly. Which, of course, is precisely the point of books like The Pelican Brief. (Doubleday, $22)

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