Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Where there’s a will…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

“They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”

sycamore rowSeth Hubbard was dying of terminal cancer and in extreme pain, so it was not altogether surprising that he had chosen to end his own life. Much more surprising was that, the day before, he had handwritten a new will, leaving the bulk of his substantial fortune to his black housekeeper and specifically cutting out his own children and grandchildren. He had also left clear instructions that he wanted Jake Brigance to be the legal representative for his estate and to fight any challenges to the will ‘to the bitter end.’

This book takes up the story of Jake Brigance three years after the end of the Carl Lee Hailey trial (A Time to Kill). Jake still hasn’t recovered financially from the loss of his house, and the expected rush of clients after the Hailey trial hasn’t materialised. So the idea of a case like this, with a guaranteed generous hourly rate for his work, strongly appeals. And when it becomes clear that Seth’s family intend to throw everything they have into challenging the will it looks like it’ll be a long case. Jake’s determined to take the dispute before a jury, mainly because he loves the thrill of a court appearance.

The question of why Seth would have left such a will is a matter of hot debate, with the majority view being that Lettie Lang must have been something more to him than just a housekeeper. But Lettie seems as bewildered as everyone else and maintains that their relationship was never more than that of employer and employee. So Jake’s old boss, Lucien, and Lettie’s daughter Portia set out to investigate the past…

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Grisham shows all his usual skill in this book – a great first chapter that hooks the reader straight away, an interesting plot, strong characterisation and the suspense of a jury trial with both sides pulling unexpected ambushes at the last moment. As in A Time to Kill, race is a major theme – the general feeling that Seth should not have cut out his own children is compounded by a belief amongst some of the white people that no black person deserves to have been left so much money. Greed figures prominently too – the greed of Seth’s unloving children scrambling for their share, Lettie being inundated with requests for help from relatives she wasn’t even aware she had, and, not least, the greed of the lawyers all trying to manipulate the case so that they get a healthy cut of the proceeds of the estate.

There is a but, though. Which is that, enjoyable and well-written as this is, it has nothing like the depth or impact of A Time to Kill. Something very strange has happened to Ford County in the last three years – attitudes have changed so dramatically that it seems as if the gap is more like the 24 years that actually exists between the two books. Here, not only is there no threat of the Ku Klux Klan and no real fear of race-related violence, but even the language has changed. In my review of the first book, I mentioned the frequent use of the n-word, which generally puts me off reading a book, but which in this case seemed relevant to the story. Three years on, not only do people not use that word any longer, but Portia is actually shocked by it on the one occasion it comes up. What happened in those three years to entirely change the culture and attitudes of this small town?

a time to killIt’s obvious that Grisham has projected modern sensibilities back onto his characters. I can see why he’s done it – readers today are even less likely to accept the kind of blatantly racist language and attitudes that would have just about been tolerated in the eighties. But it means this book doesn’t have the power or authenticity of the first – it’s all rather sanitised. And it means the fear and racial tension of the first book is almost entirely missing from this one. I’m sure it wouldn’t have struck me so much if I hadn’t read the two books back to back, but I couldn’t help feeling that this would have worked better if Grisham had set it ten or fifteen years later so that we were dealing with a different generation.

However, as a standalone, this is a very readable and enjoyable story. The twists were a bit obvious, I thought, meaning that the ending didn’t have as much surprise value as I feel Grisham intended, and the last chapter was pretty saccharin even for Grisham, as well as seeming a bit too rushed and neat. But the quality of the writing, the characterisation and the contrast of darkness and humour mean that this still stands up well as one of Grisham’s better books, leaving me hoping he will revisit Ford County and Jake Brigance again in the future.

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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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