Like Carl Hiassen, Francine Prose and Susan Straight before him, John Grisham is paying attention to the younger set. His new legal thriller, “Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer,” is targeted at readers between 9 and 12, the age group otherwise known as tweens.
The main character of this novel, 13-year-old Boone, is slightly older than that, but as a bicycle-riding junior high schooler, he is definitely still a kid. Certainly, he’s far from law school, let alone the bar exam, so what’s with that title anyway?
Well, like the writer who created him, Boone has an unusual fascination with the legal system. The only child of two busy lawyers — one a divorce attorney, the other specializing in real estate — he has a dog named Judge and spends his free time at the local courthouse.
His interest in the law is so well known that classmates seek him out for legal advice and judges make special accommodations to speak with him. Boone even scores prime seats at the local murder trial in which a husband stands accused of killing his wife.
This, of course, is classic Grisham, if a little watered down. The author, who exploded into the marketplace with 1989’s intricately murderous “A Time to Kill,” has since published 23 books, many of which center around the characters and complications of the legal world.
Many of these books are violent, dealing with the seedy side of the law. Here, Grisham takes a lighter tack, as befits his audience.
Thus, while the novel’s plot centers around a murder, it is a straightforward and bloodless strangulation. And there are no suspects other than the husband, who is likely to be acquitted.
The book’s young readership means there isn’t a whole lot of mystery in “Theodore Boone,” but there is at least one unusual, au courant twist that comes when Boone is approached with evidence that could affect the trial’s outcome.
This material is provided by an illegal immigrant who trusts Boone but fears he will be deported if he comes forward with what he knows. This dilemma results in some age-appropriate ethics wrestling for Boone, who must decide between betraying a confidence or letting a guilty man walk.
There is a lot of trial watching and explication of the legal process in “Theodore Boone” and, in some spots, it slows the book. This could have been deadly if not for Grisham’s obvious love of the legal process and his gift for distilling its complexities into easy-to-understand layman’s terms.
Especially interesting is his ability to make the law relatable to readers who probably have no understanding of how, or even if, it affects their daily lives.
Among the friends who seek Boone’s legal advice are a girl who worries about the custody arrangements in her parents’ divorce, a boy who fears his family’s home will be foreclosed upon, another boy whose older sibling has been arrested for drug possession and, of course, the “hot” girl who never paid attention to Boone until she realized he could help her reclaim her dog from the pound.
While the counsel they seek isn’t woven into the narrative as artfully as Grisham’s adult readers might expect, it may not matter to the young audience “Theodore Boone” is meant to attract. At least, that’s what the author is counting on. As for everyone else, they probably want to wait for Grisham’s new adult novel “The Confession,” which is scheduled to come out later this year.