BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Boys from Biloxi’ by John Grisham

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Set in 1960s Biloxi, Mississippi, a town on the gulf coast known as the “Poor Man’s Riviera,” this novel revolves around 12-year-old boys Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco, best friends who played all-star baseball together. Both had dreams of making it to the big leagues.

The boys grow apart as they age. Keith continues to play sports, excels in academics and takes an interest in his father’s law practice, eventually going to law school. Hugh loses interest in sports and becomes interested in his father’s night club business, where illegal gambling, alcohol sales, prostitution, and drug sales take place. The organization is referred to as the “Hillbilly Mafia.”

While “The Boys from Biloxi” is a work of fiction, the Hillbilly Mafia has similarities to the Dixie Mafia, whose home base was The Strip of Biloxi in the 1960s. It was an informal mafia, with the leadership changing depending on who had the most money. It had one rule: “Thou shalt not snitch to the cops!” The members where not connected by family or country, but they had a common goal to make money by bribing government officials, torture and murder.

Continuing to draw from history, ”The Boys from Biloxi” is set during the time Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 hurricane that hit the area. Hurricane Camille made landfall on Aug. 17, 1969, with winds up to 175 miles per hour and a storm surge of 24 feet. In all, 259 people died, and it caused $1.42 billion in property damage. (The equivalent of $10.5 billion today).

Keith’s father, Jessie Rudy, was a local attorney who sued the large insurance companies on behalf of the residents because they refused to pay damages, claiming damages were caused by the storm surge and not the wind. Jessie fights for the residents of Biloxi, without being paid until the cases are won. His popularity increases, and he is elected district attorney. For many years, Jessie is troubled by the Hillbilly Mafia’s crimes and the sheriff who is profiting from them. He promises to take the mob down regardless of his safety.

Keith and Hugh, once best friends, become adversaries when Keith joins his father’s law firm and Hugh becomes more entrenched in organized crime. Tensions rise in the courtroom and on the streets of Biloxi, and retaliation becomes inevitable. Grisham’s depictions of the courtroom scenes are riveting.

I have not read his novels in several years. I thought “A Time to Kill,” “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Client” were great, but I was not a huge fan of his later novels. After reading “The Boys from Biloxi,” I am a Grisham fan again. 

John Grisham was born in Arkansas, is a graduate of Mississippi State University and received his law degree from University of Mississippi. He has written 28 consecutive no. 1 bestsellers that have sold 300 million copies. He is one of only three authors to sell 2 million copies of a first printing.

Cathy Lay Mayor grew up in Cullman and graduated from Cullman High School in 1976. She says when she writes book reviews, she tries to remember what Mrs. Gilbert taught her in 11th-grade English. She lived in Dothan for more than 30 years and is married with three adult children and six grandchildren. She retired to Panama City, but still calls Alabama home.