After well over a dozen novels, John Grisham has made his first career attempt at non-fiction with The Innocent Man. I honestly had no idea what to expect and kept my expectations to a minimum. So before we see how this attempt turns out, let's review the plot with a quick summary.
In this true story, we are introduced to one Ron Williamson of the small town Ada, Oklahoma. When Ron was in high school, he was on top of the world; his popularity was rising fast. He was a very gifted athlete and finished second in the voting for the Oklahoma High School Baseball Player of the Year. He went on to become a top draft pick for the Oakland Athletics and started his journey to the major leagues. To Ron, it was only a given that in quick time he would rise to the top here as he did in high school. He was wrong.
Now entering adulthood, and after quickly burning through his signing bonus money, his life became nothing but night clubs, drugs, and alcohol. During the day he failed to make an impact with Minor League Baseball. He was cut by Oakland, bounced to the Yankees and a couple of other teams. None of it ever worked out. This was not high school anymore. By this time, he was married, and divorced within three years. He was entering his mid twenties and still trying to hang on to a baseball hope. Once back in Oklahoma, and seemingly done with baseball because of injury, he met and befriended Dennis Fritz--a local who also led a miserable life in this small town. Both were lonely and liked to party. So off they went together. By this time, it was not uncommon for Ron to spend a night--or even a month--in the local jail. Usually it was drunk driving for some minor disturbances.
All the while, there was murder in the town of Ada in 1982. Debbie Carter was raped and killed insider her own apartment. In the narrative, we the reader realize that the potential killer is a local man named Glen Gore--a man who had the reputation of violence towards woman. The local District Attorney--one Bill Peterson--and lead detectives, Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers--were quick to dismiss Gore as a possible candidate. To make a long story short, over five years later in 1988, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were jailed for this crime. The town--for whatever reason--were tired of this case being unsolved and they were out for blood! So trial was set-up (two trials separately). Both were prosecuted by Peterson himself; both trials were horribly orchestrated, out of control and the lies flowed freely; both Fritz and Williamson were convicted: Dennis to life, and Ron to execution. At this point we follow Dennis, but mostly Ron, into Prison and see how they both slowly anguish away. Ron on Death Row--who already was suffering emotional issues--has them become greatly magnified. He is no longer the high school star athlete with a promising life ahead.
At this point, we are halfway through the novel. What kept me reading this novel was--although it was obvious both men will be liberated--was to see how it happened. Ron at one point was three days away from execution before he received a "stay". In the end, after 12 years they are set free in 1999. But the damage has already been done to Ron. While we feel extremely satisfied how the legal proceedings turn out, we do not get the same feeling for Ron's life thereafter.
So this is the story in a nutshell. The first aspect that I will bring up is the style of writing. It took me a few chapters to realize that there is no dialog. In the beginning, I assumed Grisham was giving us a quick read through Ron's younger years. But that was not the case. The entirety of this story is written as if this is a long summary. While not sounding all that unique or intriguing, this style of writing was actually done quite well. Interestingly, Grisham's signature cynical and sarcastic styles are interweaved throughout the narrative. In the past I grew tired of this style, but it worked so effectively here. To appreciate the type of town that Ada is and the way Ron is treated, the cynical outlook here is very satisfying. Almost as if Grisham is showing us the completely ridiculousness of this case--of which it was. It is worth noting there are direct court transcripts where we are thrown out of the narrative and into live action. There are also actual letters and interviews here and there. But much of this is kept to a minimum.
Despite the lack of dialog, we still are able to connect with the people of whom this story is about, of course, primarily Ron. Many of the people introduced much later in the story, we feel as if we have known them from the beginning and we come to like them very much. Bill Peterson, is the antagonist here. He has been the D.A. for this area for a long time and even still was serving when the novel was written in 2006. Apparently this small town has not learned its lessons. Even after Dennis and Ron are freed, Peterson does not admit to being wrong. He still considered them as a suspect for years to come. It took 6 years to go by before the rightful killer was convicted--even though they had found his DNA at the crime scene early on (after Dennis and Ron are released).
So, all in all, this story reads just like a typical Grisham thriller. Except it is real! And because of this, you will become even more emotionally vested in this story and with the people in it. This is Grisham's finest novel in a long time, and it comes highly recommended--if you are ready for a story that is gripping, but leans heavily toward the depressing side.