John grisham is no longer part of the publishing industry. With 55 million copies of his novels in print (all six published since 1988), he is a publishing industry. Even before the publication date of his latest novel, The Rainmaker (434 pages. Doubleday. $25.95), his publisher ordered up a record-setting first printing of 2.8 million copies. The enthusiasm was not misplaced. The first week the novel was on sale, it sold more than 300,000 copies. That makes it, Doubleday believes, the fastest-selling hardcover book in history. In light of these statistics, the $14.13 million total that Hollywood has paid Grisham for film rights to his books (and "The Rainmaker" hasn't even been sold yet) almost looks like a footnote.

The one big mystery at the heart of this Cinderella story is why the lion's share of the American reading public continues to shell out for stories that, by any of the usual standards of good pop fiction, simply don't work. "The Rainmaker," the tale of a novice lawyer who beats a powerful Memphis law firm in a bad-faith insurance case, is typical Grisham: after the first 200 pages, it lacks a shred of conflict. You sit there thinking, "Something bad has to happen"-because this is a legal thriller, right? About three quarters through the story, even the novel's narrator figures, "Something has got to go wrong." But no. If you want suspense in a Grisham novel, plan to bring your own.

But then, Grisham doesn't want to be Scott Turow. He just wants revenge. His protagonists aren't nearly as interested in getting out of trouble as they are in getting even with somebody-the law-school classmate who got into the right firm, the jock who got the girl in high school. So, if it's payback you want, Grisham's your man. Judging by those sales figures, there are a startling number of readers out there nursing a grudge.