49 pages 1 hour read

John Grisham

The Pelican Brief

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


The Pelican Brief is a 1992 novel by the American writer John Grisham. The legal thriller tells the story of Darby Shaw, a young law student who uncovers a vast conspiracy. The book was adapted into a film in 1993 starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.

Plot Summary

An assassin named Khamel kills two Supreme Court Justices. Though the Justices were seemingly at different ends of the political spectrum, the same mysterious figure pays Khamel to kill both. The sudden, violent deaths shock the nation. The rightwing President of the United States, however, relishes the chance to appoint two new Justices and shape the future of the country for generations to come.

The murders intrigue young law student Darby Shaw. She researches the two Justices to find out what they have in common. The result of her research is contained in a summary that comes to be known as the pelican brief, in which she suggests that the murders were financially rather than politically motivated. Darby shows the brief to Thomas Callahan, a famous law professor at her university who is also her lover. Callahan shows the brief to his friend Verheek, who works for the FBI. The brief makes its way around in Washington, but many dismiss it.

Several days later, a bomb explodes in Callahan’s car. He is killed instantly, but Darby escapes. Suspicious people accost Darby, but she sneaks away to a hotel. Darby goes on the run, fleeing whoever might be chasing her and whoever killed her lover. She tries to meet with Verheek, but Khamel kills him and impersonates him in a meeting with Darby. Just as Khamel is about to kill her, a mysterious person shoots Khamel and disappears. Darby escapes again.

A man who only identifies himself as Garcia contacts famous news reporter Gray Grantham. Garcia offers information about the assassinations that he discovered at his law firm. However, he does not want to come forward. Darby also contacts Grantham and tells him that the Justices were killed on the orders of a man named Victor Mattiece, a wealthy oil magnate embroiled in a potentially lucrative environmental case that will soon come before the Supreme Court. By killing the environmentalist Justices and appointing conservatives in their place, Mattiece stands to make billions of dollars. Darby and the information inside the pelican brief intrigues Grantham, so he helps her escape from the men pursuing her around New Orleans.

The President meets with Fletcher Coal, his Chief of Staff. The President tries to convince the head of the FBI, Voyles, to stop investigating the pelican brief. Voyles records the meeting and initially agrees to do so, but resumes his investigations as more and more people are murdered, thus lending credibility to the accusations in the brief. At the same time, Coal sends a trusted person to visit Mattiece in his hidden Caribbean home to find out whether the brief is true. Mattiece confirms that it is, but kills the man before he can report back.

Darby and Grantham team up to find Garcia. By finding Garcia, they can verify the accusations in the pelican brief and publish them in the newspaper. They use a photo of the man they suspect to be Garcia to find out his real name is Curtis Morgan. However, Morgan was murdered a week earlier in a mugging gone wrong. Grantham and Darby suspect that this mugging covered up a murder, so they track down Morgan’s widow. She provides them with a key to a safe deposit box in which Morgan hid a videotape and a signed affidavit that confirms his law firm’s involvement in the conspiracy to murder two Supreme Court Justices.

Darby and Grantham take this evidence, write up the story, and reach out to the FBI, the White House, and the law firm for comment. Voyles visits the newspaper office in person and helps to clarify many of the details. He also helps Darby escape from the country, providing her with a plane to an unspecified destination. The White House and the law firm have no comment.

The story is published and the conspiracy is revealed. Many people lose their jobs and one commits suicide. Official investigations begin and the President will almost certainly lose his bid for reelection. Mattiece disappears, though a warrant is issued for his arrest. Darby flees to a remote Caribbean island. She spends weeks alone, recovering and mourning, before Grantham joins her. He claims to be tired of reporting and agrees to stay with her for a month and maybe more.