A Time to Kill by John Grisham

An eye for an eye…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a time to killTonight around 1 a.m., Grisham’s new book Sycamore Row will appear on my Kindle as if by magic. (Somewhat annoyingly, so will Donna Tartt’s new one, The Goldfinch, but Grisham will get priority.) In it, he revisits the people of Ford County who appeared in his first book A Time to Kill all of 24 years ago in 1989. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it, and even if I had, the plot had faded completely from my mind, so a refresher seemed in order. As it turns out, I haven’t read it before, though I’ve certainly seen the film.

The story begins with the horrific gang-rape and beating of a young black girl by two white men. The two men are quickly arrested and there is no doubt about their guilt. However, Carl Lee Hailey, the father of young Tonya, is not ready to let justice take its course and sets out to take his own revenge. When he is in turn arrested and charged with murder, he asks Jake Brigance to defend him. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.

burning cross

Grisham doesn’t give any easy answers and doesn’t paint anyone as a complete hero (and only the rapists and the KKK are seen as wholly villainous). There’s a huge cast of characters and we get to know their flaws as much as their strengths; and it’s an indication of Grisham’s skill that we can still like so many of them even when we are bound to disagree with most of them at least some of the time, whatever our own views. As the case proceeds and conviction looks increasingly likely, Jake has to decide how far he can stretch his fairly elastic ethics. And he also has to consider whether it’s worth the danger that he’s inadvertently brought on his family, employees and himself.

In the foreword, Grisham tells us that the book didn’t have much impact when it was first published but that over the years it has grown in popularity. I can understand both of those things. Firstly, it’s an enormous brick of a book, the first chapter is a graphic and shocking description of the gang-rape and, being based in the South and with racism as a major theme, the use of the n-word is liberal from the beginning and throughout. If it was my first introduction to Grisham, I’m not sure I’d have gone past the first few chapters. However, it is Grisham, and so I read on…and how glad I am that I did!

John Grisham
John Grisham

This is an ambitious, sprawling book that looks at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. As always with Grisham, the writing is flowing, the plot is absorbing, the characterisation is in-depth and believable and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the grim storyline. The sheer length of the book gives Grisham plenty of room to explore his themes thoroughly and he carefully balances his characters so that we get to see both sides of each argument, particularly on vigilantism and capital punishment. Grisham doesn’t peddle his own views – he lets his characters argue each side effectively and so the reader is left to decide. Grisham says that often people he meets tell him this is their favourite of all his books – if I ever meet him, I think I’ll be telling him that too. Now I can only hope that Sycamore Row lives up to the standard Grisham has set himself…

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