It is a sad fact of life that most people don't really like the job they do, even if these days they may count themselves lucky to have one at all.
It is also sadly true that it is often the best-rewarded jobs that are the most gruelling. That is certainly the opinion of John Grisham, who paints a picture uncannily evocative of Hell on Earth of the daily grind of Wall Street corporate lawyers on the fast track to earning megabucks.
Rising at dawn - sometimes after a night spent in a sleeping bag under a desk or in the office records department - working until late, eating lunch in the firm's canteen (with one eye on the clock); success measured solely in terms of billable hours charged to clients at exorbitant rates; no intimate relationships allowed inside the office; and no time left to make friends outside it. It makes you think that they'll have been weeping tears of joy at the very sound of the word “recession”.
This is the world into which Kyle McAvoy, high-flying Harvard law school graduate, is sucked, or maybe suckered. In fact, Kyle, the son of an idealistic hometown law practitioner, had intended to “give something back” by working at cut-price rates in the community for the first few years after graduation. But that was before the phoney FBI men emerged from the rotten woodwork of his past to run by him a video clip taken on a mobile phone in which he can clearly be identified at a drunken fraternity house party that got just a little out of hand.
Was Elaine, the good-time girl who had sex with almost every boy in the club, really asleep when at least two of them “took advantage” of her? And if so, was she - despite her character - subsequently justified in claiming rape?
The police might have dismissed the case at the time, but that was because they didn't know about the existence of the video. Now they just might. Especially if it ends up on the internet. Especially if it becomes known to Elaine and her new friend, a ferocious feminist lawyer.
Instead of a career of charitable legal work before going on to well-earned wealth and success, Kyle is faced with the possibility of disgrace, disaster and ruin. Unless, of course, he does one little thing: take the big New York job he has already been offered. The catch? Oh, just a little industrial espionage on the side.
Grisham is himself a man who at times has seemed to hate his job, trying to flee a world of colossally successful but rather formulaic thriller writing for more literary pastures (A Painted House) and sports fiction (Bleachers, Playing for Pizza). His publisher has obviously thought long and hard about reassuring readers that he is back on the old beat with a dustjacket that depicts a suspenseful scene of a man in a suit fleeing a car along an empty road at dusk.
Evocative for sure, but a scene that never appears in the novel. The suspense, however, is there in what is easily his most recognisably “back to form” novel since The Firm and The Pelican Brief.
Grisham has returned with a vengeance to his trademark territory: the grim world of corporate law and the sinister machinations of the men on its fringes. His broader fanbase, not to mention his publisher, will be reassured that in The Associate his nose is firmly back at the grindstone.
This review first appeared in The London Times.