The Reckoning is an odd book. It starts off strong, with the murder of Clanton’s Methodist preacher, Dexter Bell, shot three times by Clanton’s own Pete Banning. The Bannings have been in Clanton for generations, and Pete has been one of the most respected members of the community, which begged the question: why did Pete kill Dexter Bell, a preacher, husband, and father of three?
I mean, you’d read that book, right? I did and I can tell you this: It isn’t worth the read.
John Grisham neatly breaks the story into three parts: The Killing, The Boneyard, and The Betrayal. Of these three, only The Killing is worth reading; The Boneyard is another story altogether, and The Betrayal could’ve been wrapped up in five pages or less.
Let’s break it down.
Part 1: The Killing
When he got out of bed that fateful morning, Pete Banning knew what he had to do. He knew that, no matter what, Dexter Bell had to die. Did he have his reasons for it? Yes, he did. Would he share those reasons? No, he would not, even if it meant that his silence ensured his death and the ruin of the rest of his family, namely his wife and two children.
The first part of the book is engaging from the get-go, with a strong narrative pulling you along like a powerful current in a river. Pete Banning kills Dexter Bell and is arrested for it. Pete remains stoic and refuses to divulge his reasons, confounding and exasperating his lawyers. Pete is taken to court and is found guilty of first-degree murder. Pete gets the electric chair.
A great ride, from start to finish. A straightforward one, to be sure, but a pleasant read. Now, all that remains is to figure out why he killed Dexter Bell. The book hints that it has something to do with his wife, Liza, who is currently incarcerated in a mental hospital. Rather than answer that question, Mr. Grisham instead chooses to go back to the very beginning and tell the story of Pete’s war days and how he served in World War II and was captured as a prisoner of war and forced to be a part of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines.
Part 2: The Boneyard
The first half of The Boneyard is a drag, with the author simply vomiting out facts acquired third-hand from other books that he’d done the research from. What follows isn’t active storytelling, but instead passive writing, as if writing an essay on the Bataan Death March. Somewhere in part 1, a lawyer states that, although Pete’s war efforts are valiant, they’re not relevant to the case at hand, i.e., the murder of Dexter Bell. John Grisham should have followed that lawyer’s advice. The Bataan Death March, albeit a tragedy, serves no real purpose to this story. We already know everything that’s going to happen in that story; therefore, there’s no suspense. No inclination to read further to find out whether Pete gets out of the sticky situation he’s in—we already know, for a fact, that he does!
I will admit, however, that the narrative does get more engaging as the story progressed, and I found myself enjoying the tales of the guerrillas that fought against the Japanese army—imagine, now, if John Grisham had taken this idea and expanded it into a novel of its own: I would’ve read that, and probably enjoyed it a lot more than I did here, stuffed between two other stories of a wildly different nature. The Boneyard was out of place and written in passive writing for a good portion of it. I hated the passive writing the most. The rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ applies to writing as well, and we, as readers, enjoy reading about characters doing things and being cool rather than having the author tell us what happened and then move on to the next thing. There are no scenes here, no character development; in terms of the overarching plot, there’s no plot development, either. Instead, it’s a history lesson on the Bataan Death March and the horrors that the POWs were subjected to; fascinating content, to be sure, but content that has been extensively covered. John Grisham even mentions his references in his author’s note and, if you want an actual account of the Bataan Death March, you can check out Tears In The Darkness or The Doomed Horse Soldiers of Bataan by Michael and Elizabeth Norman, and Raymond G. Woolfe, Jr., respectively.
Part 3: The Betrayal
The story flounders, flops and dies by the third part, where we, and Joel and Stella, Pete’s children, finally get answers, while they lose everything else in the process as Dexter Bell’s widow and her sleazy lawyer take everything from them. Their land, their home—everything is taken away from them because of a crime that Pete committed. A crime that, when Liza finally tells her side of the story, wasn’t even warranted, because, as it turns out, she wasn’t fucking Pastor Bell at all—it had been one of the slaves they had owned: Jupe.
This bit’s obvious from the mention of a miscarriage (four, actually) and Liza asking Pete to forgive him before he gets the chair. The fact that both wanted kids is mentioned in the beginning of part 2 so blatantly that I’d hoped it was a red herring, and that an abortion wasn’t the actual reason for Pete deciding to kill the pastor. It also did make sense, though, because Pete had the one thing he wanted, kids, taken away from him while he toiled and fought to survive. Meanwhile, his wife banged the pastor—after being convinced that Pete was dead, by the way. Pete’s reasoning was not only flawed, but also so inherently stupid that it makes for bad storytelling, leading to not only a unsatisfactory conclusion, but you groaning out loud at the stupidity of the author who thought that it was a good idea.
And it turns out, the wife didn’t even bang the pastor. She fucked the slave, which doesn’t make anything better, story-wise. If anything, it makes things worse because you realise the whole story, from Pete killing the pastor, to us reading about his time in the war and him being brave amounted to nothing because he was an idiot. I don’t mean that in terms of his personality; idiots can be made into convincing characters. No, he was an idiot character, spun from nothing and given the slightest substance and depth.
“What a family,” Joel quips softly at the end of the book, after all the secrets come to light. Really, Grisham? You think that’s a satisfactory ending after making a reader wade through five-hundred pages of poorly mashed-up genres? You thought that that watery twist at the end, that it was the slave instead of Dexter Bell, that it all happened because of a misunderstanding, was a good one?
It wasn’t. The book takes a nosedive off a cliff after part 1, and, although it doesn’t crash and burn by the end of it, it does suffer great, extensive damage, making it a chore to read and finish, and a chore to recommend it to anyone who likes mysteries, thrillers, or historical fiction.