I have not read John Grisham’s legal thrillers, because of my impression that they are more thrillers than works of literature. But I had heard that his first work, written in 1989, was impressive, and that it had helped Grisham make an early mark in the world of fiction.
Well, those reports were correct. A Time to Kill is an impressive work, and can even claim the label of literature. Because it is about more than a legal case, about more than a courtroom drama, about more than an interesting lawyer acting under duress. It is about an entire society, the American South of the 1980s. It is about race and politics, about white and black relationships, about rape and justice, about demonstrations and violence, about ambition and doubt, about ethics and morality. In its own way, it parallels the work of Scott Turow, with the culture of the South here replacing that of Turow’s Chicago-like city.
A Time to Kill is about two drunken white red necks who rape a ten-year-old black girl, Tonya Hailey, in an opening scene that is blunt, graphic, and tough to read. The men are caught, and, in reaction, the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, executes the two rapists in cold blood while they are being transferred from the courthouse.
From this point forward, however, the reader is pulled back from a close-up view of the events, and becomes a witness to a carefully crafted and complex story of lawyers, the courts, the public’s response, and the overall administration of justice. Beyond the complexity however, is an emotional level, for the reader relates to the father’s revenge, and is meant to, even as he also acknowledges that the murder of the two men was a criminal act. So the reader is torn by separate responses, one by his heart and the other by his mind. He is faced with a choice between true justice and legal justice.
The lawyer chosen to defend Carl Lee is Jake Brigance, a smart, honest, young lawyer in the small Mississippi town of Clanton. He dreams of the big time, and his local reputation has earned him this big case, which challenges his ability, his integrity, his patience, and his loyalty. His key problem is: to get Carl Lee off with a plea of temporary insanity. Around him are his elderly secretary Ethel Twitty; the disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his firm; Harry Rex Vonner, a ruthless divorce lawyer often in his cups; Ellen Roark, a brilliant, aggressive law student from Boston who steals each scene she is in; and Carla, Jakes’ wife, whom he sends out of town when local citizens threaten violence.
In town, Jake must deal with Ozzie Walls, the only black sheriff in the state; Omar Noose, a smart politician turned judge; Rufus Buckley, an ambitious DA; the Rev. Agee, leader of the local black ministers; and Stump Sisson, leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. Plus, a public audience of the protesting black community, the National Guard, and members of the Klan. Not to forget a crooked Memphis lawyer, Bo Marsharfsky, and a more aggressive NAACP lawyer, Norman Reinhold, brought in to defend Carl Lee.
At a low point, Jake complains about what he, his firm, and his family have endured. Now close to bankruptcy, he senses his case and his reputation lost. Moreover, his secretary’s husband has been assaulted and died. Klan snipers have shot and paralyzed a Guardsman protecting him. His legal aide has been assaulted. His house has been burned down. His wife may be divorcing him. And, finally, he expects his client, Carl Lee, to fire him.
In summary, these seem like melodramatic events. But they have happened progressively, as both black and white forces increase their public pressure on the court and on Jake. Which makes inevitable each move toward violence in this battle to control the outcome of the trial. Resulting, of course, in greater tension in the community, as well as in the novel. Jake is a fighter, however, and he resists every move to outwit him or to intimidate him.
If there is any disappointment, it is the lack of a strong ending. First, Jake is confronted with the need to make a strong rebuttal to a key prosecution witness challenging his insanity plea. And then he needs to make a strong summing up. Yet we see him make no effort to meet either need—until, suddenly, he does. Unexpectedly. And we never see him preparing. As a result, it is the reader who is unprepared. And Jake’s success seems hollow.
Second, after the verdict is placed in the hands of the jury, we follow them into the jury room, whereupon one juror suggests what she promises is a novel solution. Grisham then cuts away, so we do not know what that solution is. And when it comes, pages later, it turns out to be a letdown. For it becomes simply a sensible suggestion. Whereas, the reader has expected it to be something original, a brilliant interpretation of the law, or of justice, that sheds new light on the entire trial. Indeed, on the entire novel. But it does not.
What we have here is a brilliant novel that explores Southern society at a crucial point in its long history, a point at which racial equality is being demanded by one side and resisted by another. And, with many resisting the law’s move toward equality, real emotions swirl across this town.
In addition, this story of a society is complemented by individual stories of the people involved. Most prominent is lawyer Jake Brigance, who is both sympathetic to change and sympathetic as a person. He is on the right side. But his allies are not all upstanding figures, and his enemies are either smart or ruthless. There is real tension here and a believable adversary. There is also suspense regarding the jury’s verdict, but disappointment, as I said, in the novel’s resolution.
This work does not turn me on to Grisham’s legal thrillers. But I am interested in Sycamore Row, which he wrote twenty-five years later, and is a sequel of sorts to this novel. Does it also have literary ambitions?
What would be interesting to explore is why Grisham turned to writing popular legal thrillers instead of attempting to explore Southern society more deeply in subsequent works. Did he feel himself inadequate to do so? Did writing about the South in depth require more time than his family budget allowed? This novel was originally published by a small press, after being rejected by major publishers. Did the temptation of a major publisher and its marketing needs become too strong to resist? (March, 2017)
Sycamore Row, this second novel, from 2013, reaches the borderline of literary works, but does not quite cross it. It reaches it by adding its portrait of Southern culture, meaning whites vs. blacks, to its main story. In this case, Grisham’s return to Clanton, Mississippi, bring us not a story of murder, as in A Time to Kill, set three years earlier, but the strange writing of a will. There are also no violence, no demonstrations. There is mainly puzzlement, about why a rich white man, dying of cancer, could leave millions to a black woman, a housekeeper who worked for and cared for him during the last three years of his life.
Grisham here uses the complexities of law that characterizes his legal thrillers, but it is the racial angle that pervaded the South in the 1980s that distinguishes this work. As in A Time to Kill, the issue is whether a person, Seth Hubbard, a rich recluse, was of sound mind when he wrote by hand a will that disinherited his family. As a wealthy lumberman, dying of cancer, he had undergone chemo and was taking Demerol. Did that treatment affect his decision-making? Or did black housekeeper Lettie Lang persuade him to omit his children and grandchildren from that final will, a will which proposes to make her the richest woman in Ford County?
The hero again is Clanton lawyer Jake Brigance, who has recovered professionally from the murder case three years earlier, but not financially. But, again, his local reputation has earned him this new case. For, on the night before he hangs himself on a sycamore tree, Seth Hubbard writes his will and designates Jake as the lawyer to see that the will is enforced. Thus, as the lawyer for the estate, Jake is determined to see that it is applied. He is opposed by lawyers for Seth’s two deadbeat and selfish children, Herschel and Ramona, and his four grand children. Some critics feel these family portraits weighs the novel too heavily against Jake’s foes, but this works for a novel with a liberal bias. Finally, Judge Atlee, in whose court the will is challenged, is a fair judge, a smart judge, but a judge subject to Southern mores, and while he and Jake get along, Jake is not sure of him at times.
We spend some time reading about the opposing lawyers as they devise their strategy and discover evidence that will besmirch the character of Lettie—discoveries which also create suspense for the reader. There is also further tension, created by an aggressive black lawyer from Memphis, Booker Sistrunk, which recalls similar ill-timed disruptions in A Time to Kill by Bo Marsharfsky and Norman Reinhold. But Judge Atlee will not stand for Sistrunk, and Grisham returns his focus to Jake and his team’s effort to support the hand-written will. His team again includes Harry Rex Vanner, a divorce lawyer, and Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his law firm, plus a new member, Portia Lang, a young and ambitious black woman who is the daughter of Lettie.
Contributing to the texture that underscores this work are the legal steps that Jake must make to support his case. This means probate (proving that a will is valid), appraisal (determining the value of the estate), discovery (of those who will testify and the evidence to be presented), and the deposition (an overview of what witnesses or experts are to say). In other words, as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Grisham details the dirty tricks, data dumping, and witness dumping routinely used by a large legal team to flummox the other side.”
A side story, not that significant, concerns Lettie’s antagonistic relationship with her husband, Simon Lang. He drinks, has no steady job, and has been known to beat her. She is considering divorce, when he accidently hits and kills two young boys with his car. This sidetracks her, and distracts Jake in his efforts on her behalf.
In a more significant side story, Grisham sends Lucien off to Alaska to find Seth’s brother, Ancil, who is mentioned in the will but has long ago disappeared. And, as a perceptive reader might anticipate, it turns out that Ancil holds the key to this novel. For it is he who reveals why Seth left his fortune to Lettie. This produces an ending that the reader completely accepts, an ending that refers back to the South’s racial history, but it is also an ending that is almost too neat in how it brings a sense of justice to Seth’s final decision to change his will. However, Grisham then introduces an even higher sense of justice, when Judge Atlee makes a decision of his own. Yet, for me, this reflects an author merely deciding to deepen the satisfaction of his readers. It is a double ending, not unlike that of A Time to Kill.
The strength of this novel lies in its portrait of a determined and honest Jake, in the collaborative efforts by his team and the opposing team of lawyers, in the sense of anticipation felt by the rejected offspring of Seth, and in the racial culture of the South—which involves everything from the tension between the Hubbard and Lang families that goes back decades to the community friction between the races, highlighted in the jury selection. And, finally, there is the dramatic scene in which Seth revisits that day when, as a boy, he witnessed the historic, climactic events that gives the novel its title.
I do think this novel might have been stronger, if Lettie had become a more introspective character, if, instead of tracking her problems with her husband, we had been allowed to see inside her, to glimpse how she felt about the impending wealth that awaited her. But she is reserved, knows her place, and has learned not to anticipate any such benefit from the world she lives in. Indeed, Grisham pulls back from her when she tells Jake she has the answer to two adverse discoveries made by the opposing lawyers. But we never do get to hear her defend herself.
Perhaps because this novel centers on a will rather than a murder, it explores the legal world more thoroughly than does A Time to Kill. Of course, that novel also explored the racial tension in the community, whereas, in this novel, the cultural element, the racial tension, exist more at the family level, at the unknown relationship between Lettie and Seth and the known relationship that survives between Lettie’s family and Seth’s family.
One might also note another contrast, that this novel focuses on how a woman’s life might be transformed for the better by the outcome of a legal proceeding, while the earlier Clanton novel focused on how the figurative destruction of a woman’s life led to a lengthy legal proceeding, as well as to the destruction of two lives and to community violence. The earlier novel carried a larger significance. Lives were at stake. But this novel holds its own as an exploration of justice and the racial tension in the South. (March, 2017)