Skip to Content

The Pelican Brief Book by John Grisham Summary and Character Analysis

Tell me why I shouldn’t call Grisham the “KING of legal thrillers.” He has given back-to-back bestsellers with A Time to Kill (1989) and The Firm (1991). When you think this author may be overrated, he shuts your mouth with novels like The Pelican Brief.

Yes, hail to the king! The Pelican Brief book is an all-time hit.

If you ask my honest opinion, I will always choose The Pelican Brief over The Firm, A Time to Kill, or other John Grisham novels. Why? Is there anything magical about the plot?

The Pelican Brief Book Summary & Characters Analysis

Nope. The book holds nothing extraordinary. But the delivery style of Grisham and his way of building up the story have hooked the readers. If you overlook the flaws in the plot, you will have a perfect chase story.

There is a larger-than-life cause, suspense, coincidence, a trail of dead bodies, and, of course, romance. Does it sound any less than a Hollywood action movie?

Still not convinced? Keep reading. Who knows, my review of The Pelican Brief book might make you change your mind? And yes, I understand if you are not into books. I have reviewed the movie version of the book in the end, too.

The Pelican Brief Book Summary (Spoiler Alert): A Deep Dive into The Novel

Trust me! I can talk for hours on The Pelican Brief book. But there is no meaning in boring you guys. Let me keep things short and give you a clear picture of this novel.

The Pelican Brief Book Summary

The Double Murder Left Everyone Stunned

Rosenberg, a Justice counting his last breaths, tops the hit list of the entire country. What has he done wrong? Apparently, everything. His verdicts are not very popular among the masses.

Apparently, Rosenberg is not the only Justice who is receiving such hatred. There are riots, protests, and ongoing bombings against all the Justices and even against the President.

The FBI cannot but offer these high-profile citizens extra security.

While the other Justices are okay with such arrangements, Rosenberg does not want to be a part of this drama. We have another stubborn Justice, Jenson, playing hide and seek with his own security (is he mad or what?).

Jenson, the youngest Justice, appears to have a gay fetish. As homosexuality is illegal (Oh! Don’t get triggered. We are talking about the ’90s), he goes to the gay porn theaters.

I almost pitied those security officers trying to babysit these two pricks.

Things are going alright, and then one night, boom! Our two brave (read foolish) Justices are found dead, Rosenberg in his house and Jenson in the theatre. Both are shot, and of course, there are other casualties, too.

Can you imagine what it looks like to have 2 Justices killed in one single night? They were assigned the highest security and yet lost lives.

An international criminal, Khamel, has made these impossible murders possible. What is his motive? We have to walk a long way before we get this answer.

Everyone is Pointing Everyone

As I said, a double murder of Justices in one night is no joke. The President calls for an emergency meeting with the CIA head, director of the FBI, vice president, and, yes, Coal.

Give me a few seconds to introduce Fletcher Coal to you. He is the assistant of our spineless President (some might say Coal is the main President). This little bastard plans everything and manipulates the President to listen to him.

I have found this meeting rather funny. No one has a single clue about why the Justices got killed and who is behind it. So, they suspect everyone possible (maybe the entire USA, LOL).

Most importantly, these heads have no genuine respect for each other. They are all looking for a chance to stab the backs.

No wonder those meetings and funerals end up with chaos. No one knows how to approach the case, and their investigations are drastic failures. Brace yourself, idiots! Your Messiah (our protagonist) will save you from this slump.

A Theory, Maybe…?

Darby Shaw, the protagonist of our book, is just another 24-year-old law school nerd who happens to have an affair with her teacher, Thomas. Umm… Thomas is almost double Darby’s age. But you have heard, no? Age is just a number.

The deaths have also upset Darby and Thomas. Why the murders? This curiosity kills Darby, and she takes off to the library to get her answer. Within three days, she comes up with a theory, The Pelican Brief, which explains the situation.

The trick is simple. Darby only studies those cases common between Rosenberg and Jenson to find a link. And there it is! The dots are connecting by themselves.

When she shares her hunch with Thomas, he is impressed but doubtful. But as a good boyfriend, Thomas uses his connection (Gavin, a lawyer working for the FBI) to reach the brief to the White House.

But unlike Thomas, these powerful idiots are not impressed with the theory. Instead, they get scared. The brief includes names that can ruin our puppet President, and he will lose the election.

So, what does he do? He requests the FBI director, Voyles, to eliminate this theory and work on the other strings. Not only that. He wants to ensure the Pelican brief does not see the light of day.

Thank God! Voyles is not a good boy. He says yes to the President but orders his team to work only on the Pelican brief.

Wait! A theory is causing all this chaos? What is the Pelican Brief anyway?

What is the Pelican Brief – Our McGuffin

Apparently, Darby’s shot hit on point. Her theory is simple. Years ago, Louisiana had oil mines in its water. A wealthy industrialist, Mattice, bought all the surroundings, thinking he would profit from those resources later.

But because of the sudden industrial revolution in oil, Pelican birds from that area started to disappear. To save the species, nature lovers came forward and banned oil extraction.

Mattice was at a severe loss. His only chance to regain the wealth was to kill the two justices on the case and reform the jury that would favor him.

Honestly, Darby’s theory made more sense than any underground army killing Jenson and Rosenberg. But of course, the President cannot go against his alliance, Mattice, an investor in his election campaign. So, the brief did not stand a chance.

Well, it would be alright if these people could have just left the brief. But they decided to do worse, not with the theory, but with those who knew about it.

The Massacre Begins: If You Know Pelican Brief, You’re Done!

Until now, I was okay with every character, even with Coal, the President, and the CIA head. I mean, you have to be a little bit cracked to run a God-damn country. Right?

But everything becomes crystal clear when more killings begin based on the Pelican brief. Those shitheads in power are the bad ones.

They attempt to kill Darby, not once, not twice, but almost four times. But our star gets to escape death every time. However, sad for Thomas, who gets bombed out instead of Darby.

Right when Thomas ends up dead, Darby is sure she is not safe, and she hits the road immediately. She contacts Gavin for help, but alas! The bad guys get Gavin killed, too.

Finally, for Darby, the only way out of this shit hole is to reach out to Grantham, a journalist who is working on this murder mystery from the beginning. But he does not have a theory.

So, when Darby reaches Grantham, he can see the whole picture and pull off the puzzle. But wait! There is still a missing piece.

Now, This is Big News!

Grantham and Darby cross-check all the facts of the Pelican brief, which sit just right. But there is only one loose end. They cannot fit Mattice in this theory. All they need is confirmation that Mattice is the one who is pulling the trigger.

Let’s just say our duo gets lucky this time. They find a lawyer, Morgan, who gives them the missing piece of the puzzle. And when they glue them together, it becomes the hottest news of that time.

Grantham becomes the star journalist overnight, and the bad guys are now searching for an escape.

What happens to Darby Shaw?

The Happy Ending…

Darby leaves the country and settles in the Caribbean. Her love for Thomas will never die, but she is not a Juliett. So, she moves on with her life and gets herself a handsome boyfriend. Any guesses?

Yes, Grantham.

Grisham actually has yet to tell us what happened to the couple. But let’s just hope they have kids by now.

My Honest Review on The Pelican Brief John Grisham: I HAVE To Say These Things

See, I like The book. But I am not a blind diplomatic fan who does not complain. Consider me the opposite. You cannot stop me from ranting if I start once (Yes, guilty).

Here come my regrets with the book and the story.

What’s Wrong with The Novel?

Umm… I have only a few complaints about the novel. Grisham has overestimated his readers’ capability. He has introduced character after character. I literally struggled to keep track of all those popping heads.

Even though I am okay with the head counts, I see significant issues with the plot. In my opinion, Grisham has made everything more obvious. For example, the romance between Darby and Grantham was predictable.

I have talked with readers who hate this chemistry. People are calling the couple names. They are frowning upon this love angle between the white knight and the damsel in distress.

What do I think about the couple? Aaa… I better not comment. Yes, I believe it’s none of our business what Darby should do. Yet, it was too early to move on (Don’t hate me, guys).

Well, finding Morgan and his stuff looked too coincidental to me. Come on, Grisham. You could have made our love birds work a little bit more.

Finally, I want to end my rants by complaining about the Pelican Brief book. Yes, yes! Grisham has touched on an environmental issue and all.

Claps! Claps! But it wouldn’t hurt to add more spice to the story. No, Grisham? We could save nature but with more enthusiasm. Okay, next time!

This Novel Is an Absolute Page Turner

Grisham’s writing style and delivery got better with The Pelican Brief book. He had explained everything in simple, non-legal terms, understandable for everyone. Besides, I didn’t catch Grisham wasting any page blabbering about something non-important.

From the beginning (the riot) to the end (the romance), not for a moment will you feel bored. There is suspense everywhere in the book, and you will brainstorm continuously.

“What happens next?” I believe this question is the parameter of a successful thriller book. Congratulations Grisham! I had asked myself this question a thousand times when reading this novel.

The suspense was good. You are forced to turn the page. But as mentioned, it could have been better. However, Grisham had written the book in the 90’s when technology played no role.

If he forwards the plot 30 years in the future, you might have a mission-impossible script. Just kidding!

Like I said, you do not have to worry about the thrill. You will get the adrenaline rush on every other page. Also, I was worried about Darby because of all those chases. When she finally made it to the end, I was honestly relaxed.

I think Grisham has brought up 3 factors in this novel. He has shown us the normal dirty power game in the upper level. They can do anything to have the situation in their favor. I know not all country heads act like such idiots—still, shame on you all.

Secondly, the author has talked about nature and species conservation. He may have used the oil industry just for the plot. But in reality, our world is dying, and there are rich brats sitting out there killing everything for their benefit.

Maybe it is a wake-up call for all of us. We should be more involved with nature.

Finally, I see The Pelican Brief book as a celebration of journalism. The way Grantham and his team have dedicated themselves to this piece of news is worth appreciating.

If such a thing occurs today, most newspapers or media will not run it. Instead, they will make a settlement with the influential party.

But thank God Grantham was not greedy. He stood for the truth till the end. In fact, he had refused to name Mattice without any solid proof. It showed that he was a man with dignity.

Let’s Analyze The Pelican Brief Book Characters

Grisham has shown more maturity with character-building this time. In his previous two books, he struggled to find a balance. But Grisham is a pro. He has given the characters enough screen time in the novel.

The Pelican Brief Book Characters

Of course, there are hundreds of characters in the novel (not literally), and talking about them all is nearly impossible. So why not discuss our favorites?

Darby Shaw: A Nobody Who Becomes the Star Coincidentally

A female protagonist is uncommon in Grisham’s books (The Whistler series is different).

So, when he introduced Darby Shaw, I was impressed. She is stunning, witty, and intelligent (and wealthy). Her presence of mind is of another level (you can guess obviously by her escape plans).

Darby has a brilliant mind, but she is just an ordinary girl. The way her hunch (the pelican brief) has changed her life is even beyond my imagination.

She has lost her lover, and the monsters are thirsty for her blood. She deserved to say a better goodbye to Thomas. After all, the couple were madly in love.

Grisham has made it very clear that Darby is not a doll. She can be brutal. Dude, she has escaped Khamel and cracked the hottest case simultaneously.

How about that? She has just flipped the switch and made that emotional baggage her strength. If we don’t crave to be like Darby, we should go to hell.

Grantham & Thomas: Our Heros (?)

Not going to lie. I like both Grantham and Thomas. They are chill and stand against the stereotypes of society.

Yet, I am not ready to call Thomas the hero. Yes, he could be the prince charming, meticulous, and street smart. But not the hero.

I agree that the Pelican brief could never reach the FBI without Thomas. But the killings have started right after, no? For me, Thomas is a side character in this novel. When who is the hero?

Obviously, Grantham. He has made a significant contribution to the entire story. Without him, Darby couldn’t do half the things.

Grantham has taken full responsibility for Darby and kept to his word. He could have betrayed Darby but chose to protect her instead. I guess you always get rewarded for your deeds. Grantham had it, too, both the front paper and the girl.

Rosenberg and Jenson: The Dead Justices

I do not want to get into any heated argument about Rosenberg and Jenson. Initially, I thought Rosenberg was an old, irritating prick (which he is). He was stubborn but seemed to play by the book.

Do I like him? I actually do. He had always tried to do the right thing without picking the side of the majority. It made him plenty of enemies, for sure. But a Justice should be fearless about his voice. Right?

About Jenson, he didn’t have the spine like Rosenberg. Yes, he has made some controversial decisions. But he was afraid of exposing his sexuality and taking a stand for what was right. He was a people pleaser, the one I hate the most.

The Bad Guys: Power Greedy Monsters

Ahem! The novel is swarming with villains. Just pick any random character. Gimnisky, you say? The CIA brass? He will do anything to save his ass.

Fletcher Coal is the puppet master, and the President is the puppet. He stands up when Coal tells him to and pees when Coal orders him. Kidding. But the reality is similar.

Mattice, the nature destroyer, has killed no one knows how many people. The Green Fund founder, Morgan, the cops, the nurse? Mattice has ordered the killings of hundreds of people to get his case passed.

Finally, Khamel, the great Khamel. This international killer did his job outstandingly well. He turned the table in just one night. But good Lord! Our villain boy got himself killed, too! Who killed Khamel? Rupert, his fellow mate, killed him for money.

This is the thing with bad people. They will cut anyone’s throat for a few bucks and power. For them, love, bond, and compassion do not exist.

People Who Deserve a “Thank You”

I said the Pelican Brief book is swarming with villains. Right? Yet, you will find good people there. Take Alice as an example. She knows something is wrong, but she helps Darby as a best friend should.

Serge, the insider of Grantham, leaks every information he can. Though he does it for money, he is with the good people at least.

Voyles is more diplomatic. But in the end, when he gives the newsroom the green signal, it shows he has some guts. Also, he is brave enough to give up the conversation between him and the President.

Who else? I salute Morgan, who got himself killed for investigating the killings. Mrs Morgan is also brave to support the cause after his death.

The Pelican Brief Movie or the Novel: Which One is Better?

Nowadays, I have stopped watching book-based movies. They turn out to be a disappointment anyway. Was the Pelican Brief film any different?

Yes and no!

Pelican Brief True Story

See, I have no doubts about Julia Roberts as an actress. I am sure she has done what she was told to. But I am sure this is not the Darby Shaw I read in the book. Yes, the movie needed to provide depth to the novel’s most crucial character.

I swear I wanted to strangle that bloody movie Darby Shaw so bad (I resisted myself! No violence). No wonder people are calling this character problematic.

The handsome Sam Shepard was too busy being Thomas, the spoiled boyfriend and teacher. But his role was even shortened in the movie.

Tony Goldwyn did an excellent job as Coal Fletcher. I hated him as much as I hated the book Coal. Isn’t that something?

I have become a great fan of Khamel (sorry!). The way he kills, with such speed and style, is too damn cool (I am not a sadist! Trust me!).

Finally, our star boy Grantham was played by Denzel Washington. He has saved the entire movie from drowning. Trust me. Our boy gave his 110% and nailed his character as Grantham.

Thankfully, The Pelican Brief’s plot was mostly the same as the makers did with The Firm. Of course, they only adapted the novel partially, but there are no massive differences.

Yet, the movie disappointed me because of Darby Shaw. As the makers failed to bring depth to her character, the entire film seemed nonsense to me.

Should You Read the Pelican Brief Book from Cover to Cover?

Are you a legal thriller fan? Yes? Then you should definitely read The Pelican Brief book. The novel is, without any doubt, a page-turner. I held my breath on so many pages, especially when Khamel killed Gavin and was after Darby now. You will keep finding surprises on every other page.

Well, if you are an avid suspense reader, you might find the book dull. But just read the novel with an open mind; this Grisham creation will not disappoint you.

Do you not want to spend days on this novel? Go for the Pelican Brief movie instead. I am sure you are not missing out much.

Are you interested in other Grisham’s books? Why don’t you check The Firm book summary and review, then? Who knows, this chase drama can be of your type?