by Jule Selbo

I’m reading John Grisham’s 2021 release The Judge’s List.

Very soon – as I was reading – I got interested in how – in the first 100 pages, Grisham’s employed the “I can’t tell you now”, “I can’t tell you everything I know”, “I can’t tell you here”, “I can’t let you look at the file that is right here in my hand because I am afraid/untrusting/paranoid” and “If you meet me tomorrow, I’ll tell you more” technique. I have to admit, I got a little frustrated, but I could see, story-wise, what he was using the page space for:

  1. Set up the BJC in Florida (Board on Judicial Conduct); where the protagonist works as a lawyer whose task it is to make sure misconduct of judges is illuminated. Make it clear what procedures have to be followed, as well as the protocols, missions and pecking orders of the BJC office. Who’s in charge, who makes the final decision on what cases to pursue. Also, what the lawyers must do when faced with a complaint – what is in their jurisdiction, and what they must hand over to local law enforcement or the FBI.
  2. Allow enough time (days) to pass to get to know the protagonist (Lacy Stoltz, just turning 40). A bit of her backstory (this is the second in a series), how she feels about her career, her choices, setting up the ennui that has set in.
  3. Let Lacy show her chops as an investigator. She takes the little information she’s given by the mysterious, tight-fisted complainant, allows her curiosity to lead and expands on the small bits of material that have been given to her.
  4. Set up antagonistic forces and nay-sayers. A lazy boss (Cleo) at the BJC, and having to answer to a board of directors who need to hear about every case,  and be clear that the local, state police force (and FBI) will often not share information.
  5. Give the reader a chance to like other characters at the fading-in-energy BJC. The ones who are, for different reasons, committed to their jobs. Saddell (researcher) and Darren (fellow lawyer with a sense of humor) are quickly filled out, the reader comes to “like” them and will worry about them down the road.
  6. Move the “I can’t tell you here, meet me there for the next smidgen” scenes from meeting place to meeting place – this gives the reader a series of locations that help ground the story in place.
  7. Allow Lacy to become “a reluctant hero”. She’s tired of her job, the way the office is run, the perimeters of how she must proceed. The “I can’t tell you now” info provider is frustrating to her – the complaint is suspect (no actual proof, just circumstantial – a gathering of dubious clues). The crimes cross state lines, Lacy knows this complicates her job – even takes it out of her area of authority. More of the rules of conduct are laid out and Lacy is tired of bureaucracy – wonders if she should change jobs.
  8. Lacy tells the persistent “stingy-with-information” person that she (meaning the BJC) will not/cannot take the case quite a few times (I won’t go back and count, but it’s at least five or six or seven times) and gets annoyed with the person does not hear that “no”.
  9. Expand on the character (Jeri) – the woman who parcels out information so slowly.
  10. Let the reader get to know the accused bad-guy judge without even “meeting him” – we learn through Jeri’s biased accounts. Build the (possible) criminal’s reasons for his crime. Build his odd, scary personality and backstory through the lens of Jeri.
  11. Let us wonder if Jeri a reliable source or has she gone off the deep end?
  12. The slow drive up the entrance to the story highway also gives Grisham the time to set up Lacy’s romantic life – getting the reader to care about her in another sphere besides the workplace. Her FBI boyfriend might be ready to pop the question and Lacy’s wondering if she wants the engagement ring or not.
  13. Get the reader wondering if the “real story” will pop in soon.

Question: What’s your preference? Does this kind of overt withholding of information work for you or do you prefer to give as much information as you can at each turn  – to see how the story can deepen from there?

I’ve just gone back into The Judge’s List to count the days that have passed in the first 100 pages. Three workdays, a weekend, two more workdays – a total of seven days. There are multiple times Lacy tells Jeri, “I can’t help you”, “Don’t call me again”, “This is not what the BJC does”, “My boss says we can do nothing”, “You have no proof, so there is no case.”. Lacy’s continual “no” to pursuing the case is juxtaposed with her picking up the phone and/or agreeing to meet Jeri over and over again. This push and pull of Lacy’s intent makes the reader see her deep need to get excitement into her life – for the rush she gets from entering a danger zone when on the hunt for a bad judge who really needs to be put away.

Alert: SPOILER (Stop reading if you haven’t read the book and plan to read it and you hate spoilers. My husband doesn’t mind them because he’s trained his mind to only retain information on cars, boats and new cocktail recipes. (At least that’s what it seems like to me.))

So, at page 100 or so, the story kicks in. There’s a twist. There’s a new murder. Lacy kicks off her doldrums about life, work, love. She accepts a promotion. Now she can make larger decisions at the BJC office – i.e. what cases to pursue, where to put the manpower. Her curiosity, her hunger for glory, the thrill she gets living on the edge is now able to move forward.

Question: Is the 100 page mark the “typical time” for a shift, for the raising of stakes, of knowing that set up now must be over and more aggressive crime-solving action must become paramount?

I like procedurals, reading about and learning about how the professionals solve crimes. I also like amateur sleuths because most, in their pursuit of justice, are dogged and obsessed and make plenty of mistakes. I like the hybrid nature of Lacy – part amateur and part pro. She has skills, she knows the law, she knows her given role in the pursuit of crime solving – but she’s untrained in things like surveillance, use of guns, etc. This hybrid works for me.

Some amateur sleuths boggle my mind. Late one night, when wanting to veg, I happened on a crime show, In the Dark (2019-2022, a CW show).

The amateur sleuth (Murphy) is in her twenties, she’s blind, she’s selfish, she’s a sexaholic and alcoholic, she uses people, and she expects huge passes on her arrogant behavior because of her disability. She works at a Guide Dog School, screws up and/or bags on her job constantly (to have sex or follow clues on a crime she’s interested in). Viewers are meant to care for Murphy because she’s flippant, self-deprecating, pretty and she’s got a great guide dog and she does bond with a few people.

In the first season, one of few friends she has gets murdered; she’s devastated and becomes obsessive about finding the killer. She outsmarts cops and entrenched criminals, stumbles (literally because of her disability) into great danger. As a viewer, I sometimes laugh out loud as her (unbelievable) survival skills. But – I admit, I’m still watching (just finished season one). What’s keeping me watching? I guess wanting to see how the writers complicate the stories, how they deal with Murphy’s disability, and hoping she might actually decide to learn some actual procedural skills. (I won’t hold my breath – this is a CW show and aimed at viewers who like aspiration, are fine with stereotypes, appreciate nice make-up (Murphy, the blind protagonist wears perfect eyeliner, mascara and lipstick at all times). CW viewers tune in for more broad stroked-stories, don’t worry too much about logic – the programming is usually not out to explore a more ‘reality’ based story palate (IMO).)

But back to WAIT FOR IT.  In the Dark has 13 episodes per season. A crime is committed in episode one and the solving of it takes 12 more episodes. The amount of not giving known information, of withholding information that, if shared, could solve the crime much sooner is huge.

Sometimes this is accomplished by using an interruption of an opportunity for sex (which, of course, must take precedence over crime-solving) or a bar fight or malevolent of benevolent stonewalling, getting in the middle of a drug deal or a birthday party at the Guide Dog School.  I am having a lot of fun watching the show and yelling at the screen.

Question: Are you a tortoise when it comes to information sharing?

 Or are you a hare?

Every story’s going to have its own form and pace. But when is “slow” too slow? Is parsing out information a style? Not even sure what I’m exploring here, but Grisham’s book and this improbable television show got me thinking about these questions.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. She's just completed the next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery; release date was September 2022. She's currently working on 8 DAYS...
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4 Responses to WAIT FOR IT?

  1. kaitcarson says:

    Interesting questions. How long is this book? Many of the plotting theories I’ve read suggest the inciting incident, or what I call the let’s get to the meat and move this puppy along scene, should occur at the 25% mark. I’m more of a let’s get in and get ‘er done reader and writer. The quality of writing might keep me reading for 100 pages of teasers, and Grisham is certainly capable of that kind of quality, but it would be a judgement call.

  2. jselbo says:

    About 400+ pages. Doesn’t feel that “thick” but I just looked it up on Amazon so I didn’t have to run down the hall to look at my copy (ahhh – am I lazy or do I not want to distract myself from the editing I am doing?)

  3. Good questions, Jule. I am in the camp that dislikes a lot of withholding/game playing. If the failure to reveal big secret(s) goes on too long, I quit or my attention is lost. I would rather have twists and surprises than to create suspense by keeping information from a reader.


  4. matthewcost says:

    Things gotta happen for me. You wanna tell me later? Don’t bother.

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