Grisham digs into politics of death penalty

We start out in the great state of Texas -- which leads the nation in executions -- with a young, black high school athlete named Donte Drumm.

Drumm was convicted nine years before for the rape and murder of a popular young cheerleader. Drumm says he is innocent of Nicole Yarber's murder, and her body has not been found. But he was rumored to have had a secret affair with the girl, and to have killed her after she tried to break off their relationship. On top of that, he has confessed.

But hold on there. His confession came after five hours of intense questioning, and as soon as he had signed the videotaped confession he repudiated it.

As the novel opens, a young Lutheran minister in Topeka, Kan., has been approached by a convicted rapist who says he is dying from a brain tumor and wants to confess to Yarber's murder.

At the same time, a classmate of the murdered girl, who testified that he had seen the accused killer's car near the scene of the crime, now is hinting that he lied.

Only weeks remain before Drumm's execution date, and his hardworking lawyer is fighting to find some way to get a new trial, or at least to get a stay of execution until new evidence can be discovered.

Stirring up the anti-Drumm hatred is a conservative TV talk show host who loves gory crime stories, and a governor who takes pride in his reputation for being tough on crime. The boy has confessed, and that is all Gov. Newton needs to know.

The minister, Keith Schroeder, calls Drumm's lawyer. They finally decide that their best hope is to drive Drumm to Texas in the hopes that his confession will at least delay the execution. So the novel becomes a race against time, as Keith, fighting to stay awake, and driving an ancient car with almost 200,000 miles on it, transports a convicted murderer hundreds of miles across three states in an effort to get someone to listen to his story and clear an innocent man.

It would be unfair to tell you how this all works out, but Grisham is identified on the jacket copy as being on the Board of Directors of two chapters of the Innocence Project. They are dedicated to "exonerating wrongfully convicted men through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system," and it seems unlikely that his story will have a happy ending.

Most of this novel -- which shot right to the top of The New York Times best-sellers list last fall and still is high on the list -- demonstrates both his exceptional ability to keep a story going and his firsthand knowledge of the workings of our justice system. The Times is quoted on the book jacket as calling him "as good a storyteller as we've got in the United States these days," and the opening half certainly lives up to this praise.

But Grisham has more in mind than telling a story, and I'm afraid his message -- as much as I agree with it -- gets in the way.

OK, Mr. Grisham, you've had your say, now let's get back to the kind of story that made you famous in the first place.