I Read Another Book: The Pelican Brief

Moby Dick is not the only book I’ve been reading.

A Brown Pelican, oddly relevant

It would be rather odd if it was, since I only read a few chapters a week, and they’re usually not very long, and for months I wasn’t even updating this blog! No, while I haven’t been reading as much as usual lately, since I’m not working at the Pike Place Market for obvious reasons, I have been pecking away at some books before bed every night.

In the spirit of one of my favorite podcasts, I decided to make some posts about ’em. Just the usual reflections, but on a whole work instead of a little piece of it. It’s not a formal review, just some stray thoughts and observations, more in the style of my Moby Dick posts.

There are several Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood, I have a habit of perusing them as I go on my daily walks. They’re fun to look at because they contain all sorts of little odds and ends, the stuff that tends to clutter up bookshelves, but you still have some lingering affection for. A lot of old airport and grocery store paperbacks, the kind of thing you reach for just to kill some time, not real classic literature by any means.

The cover of the edition I read

So, on one of my walks, I decided to pick up and read The Pelican Brief, by John Grisham. It was an old, worn copy, the spine already well dented and folded, and I was curious about it. This is one of those things I’ve heard referred to many times in my life, but I have never known what it’s really about, other than the vague notion that it’s some sort of legal thriller. In fact, I’d never read any John Grisham book, despite him being such a popular author.

I read it, and it was pretty fun. The story was way more interesting than I was expecting, a “legal thriller” still has “legal” in the name, after all. I was expecting maybe some sort of high-stakes trial or something, but no it actually opens with some assassinations, and mostly deals with, like, the legal world, rather than a specific ongoing trial.

The plot concerns the assassination of two supreme court justices by a mysterious middle eastern assassin named Khamel. The first justice was ancient and extremely controversial, killed in his own home, the other was very milquetoast but secretly gay, and was in fact murdered in a gay porn theater. All the law enforcement bodies rush to solve this heinous crime, and marvel at how it could have happened, since they were both killed in the same night.

But, it turns out the person who figures it out is a law student at Tulane, an attractive young woman who is dating her constitutional law professor. The book pulls a bait-and-switch with him, he seems to be the protagonist in the early going, but it shifts to the student after he gets killed in a car bomb. Anyway, she writes the titular Pelican Brief which exposes the whole conspiracy behind the assassination, but shadowy forces conspire to kill her and vanish the evidence she’s uncovered, thus the car bomb that kills her lover.

So then this law student, Darby, goes on the run and that makes up a good portion of the book. Spy games at hotels and on the streets, communicating with a reporter at the Washington Post, making contact with the FBI, and so on. Eventually she travels to Washington DC and works with the reporter to find solid proof of her assertions, in a somewhat ridiculous way.

It turns out that a whistleblower working at a law firm handling the case that is the center of this conspiracy recorded a full confession on video tape before being murdered by the conspirators. And so, it’s all exposed and the bad people are punished, the day is saved, Darby gets to run off to the Bahamas to relax for a while, and the reporter comes to stay with her after a couple months.

Oh right, so the actual conspiracy is that both of the justices were murdered because they were sympathetic to environmentalism. The person who ordered the assassinations was some rich guy who wanted to drill for oil in a swamp that was the only habitat for endangered pelicans, and it was a legal case that had been going on for years and years, making its way towards the supreme court. In order to secure victory at that level, he bumped off the two justices most likely to rule against him.

What’s interesting here is that we see a very direct story about the evil, corrupting influence of money and corporate power (especially in the law firms hired to represent this evil oligarch). But also, it’s a story where the FBI and CIA are the good guys. They are genuinely working towards justice and truth, the agents we see are all decent, hardworking people. And the truth is exposed by a newspaper, getting immediate results!

Ah, in some ways it feels delightfully naive, looking back at the early ’90s, when such a thing was really possible. For a president to merely have the appearance of corruption cause such a huge scandal that any chance of reelection was immediately destroyed. Were these institutions ever so strong? It’s difficult to believe, in this, the year of our lord two thousand and twenty, when the president can openly admit to a corrupt scheme to win reelection on national TV and nobody bats an eye.

But also, it’s a window in such a completely different time, it’s almost dizzying. No internet, no email, no cell phones. People running around looking up the numbers for pay phones, trying to find someone by just… wandering the streets of a city where you think they are, hoping to spot them. Doing research in libraries and by calling the places you want to know about, doing old fashioned social hacking to get secret or at least non-public-facing info. It’s kind of quaint, in its own way, and grounds you in an understanding of how much things have changed in the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, the thing about the CIA and FBI being basically unambiguous good guys is just hilariously naive. I suppose it’s not that unusual for them to be seen as heroes in mainstream cultural, copaganda and all that, but the way it’s presented is just so earnest, it reads as almost comical. The CIA are secretly keeping watch over our heroine, and prevent her from being assassinated at a critical moment! The director of the FBI goes to the Washington Post in person and delivers a message condemning the president and dooming him politically. They’re all but working hand in hand at the end, because a crime has been committed!

I’m being a bit un-generous, the text also shows that the CIA and FBI feel slighted by the president, and by the basically mustache-twirlingly evil chief of staff at the white house. You see, the president (who goes unnamed in the book, oddly) received some large campaign contributions from this same oligarch that is enacting this conspiracy, so he just wants to bury the whole thing after he reads the Pelican Brief.

It’s like… the book gets so close to untangling this whole knot of interconnections and corruption between politicians and corporate interests, but just can’t quite get there. It’s reserved to just this one comically evil millionaire, everyone else is doing their best and totally on the level. It’s the kind of story that unintentionally exposes how broken the system is, while also trying to demonstrate how it works perfectly in response to a crisis.

A classic example

With the villain, the story employs the classic dodge of heaping all the evils of the world onto a central figure, and then vanquishing them. You might recognize it as the behavior of a certain whale-hating sea captain with only one leg. In this case, it is the legal system that is being exonerated from all wrongdoing through this act of scapegoat sacrifice.

Ah yes, all the hard-working rank and file lawyers are not to blame, it was the corrupting influence of this one malign individual that undid them. The system itself is vulnerable to outside corrupting influence, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the system itself. It just needs to be safeguarded by watchdogs like the FBI and news reporters. The vague threat of “scandal” is enough to keep people on the straight and narrow!

In a weird way, this is that same sort of theodicy was talking about in that article about IT. There is a cultural tendency to want a Satan, a Lucifer, some sort of prime mover of evil intent. It gives some sort of order to the universe, it’s a story we’ve all heard before, so it’s comforting.

Ultimately, I don’t really blame Grisham for doing this. It’s just a fun little airport paperback, after all, not a work of serious capital-L Literature. Sometimes, you just want something comforting and familiar, that will show you heroes doing the right thing and villains being punished, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Lord knows, I enjoy plenty of things that follow this same structure!

What I will blame John Grisham for is the writing of the female protagonist, Darby. She is written as the fantasy “smart girl” at every turn. Objectified by every male character, and the gaze of the book itself. The reporter character she ends up falling in love with has a leg fetish, and you’d better believe he thinks about how long hers are every time they meet.

There’s also some obvious vilification of mental illness in the depiction of the evil rich guy, Mattiece. Basically the old Howard Hughes tropes, he’s living in a clean room, sensitive to light, very paranoid, etc etc.

Overall, the book just has a confident tone that is totally at peace with its own prejudices and cultural context. It feels very of its own time in that way. It was released in 1992, firmly in the ’90s, a couple years after the fall of the Berlin wall. The US was searching about for its next enemy, bracing for its next crisis, unsure what was going to happen next. It was a time of great tumult, but the culture became very complacent and introspective.

I know it has a more specific meaning, but I tend to think of it as the “End of History” attitude. All the great conflicts have been fought, all the big decisions have been made, now we get to just become philosophers and ask the big questions and fret over tiny details of policy. Capitalism won, any progress that is yet to be made will be made in a slow, inevitable, gradual march. The game is over, and we’ve moved into just cleaning up the last little bits of trouble here and there.

It’s hard to put into words directly, at least for me. I grew up in that milieu, and putting a name to it has really helped me get a grasp on what it’s all about, but it’s still difficult to really pin down. And, for me, it’s also tied up in a lot of childhood nostalgia, which certainly doesn’t help.

VERDICT: The Pelican Brief is a pretty decent book. A nice page-turner, it’s got some suspense but nothing too taxing or gross. A nice bit of fluff, to transport you back to a different age in the recent past, when things were slightly less terrible.

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