A Time for Mercy is a gripping courtroom thriller.

Since A Time to Kill was published in 1989, John Grisham has sold more than 300 million books and become one of the world’s wealthiest authors. Nine of his books—all bestsellers—have been adapted into films. A Time for Mercy, his 42nd novel, brings back to life Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance and the other leading characters in A Time to Kill. Set in 1990, five years after the events portrayed in the earlier novel, A Time for Mercy merges a gripping courtroom thriller with a compelling portrait of changing race relations in the rural South. It’s vintage Grisham.

When is a homicide not a murder?

Stuart Kofer is a deputy sheriff in Ford County, Mississippi who is popular with law enforcement and the public alike. But off-duty he is a violent, out-of-control drunk. In the middle of a night in March 1990, he stumbles home, savagely beats up his girlfriend, and threatens her two teenage children with the same. Unable to get to them beyond a barricaded door, he passes out on his bed. Both children are convinced their mother is dead. So the boy, sixteen-year-old Drew Gamble, enters Stuart’s room, picks up his service revolver, and shoots him in the head at close range. Is it murder? Capital murder deserving of the death penalty?

A Time for Mercy (Jake Brigance #3) by John Grisham (2020) 465 pages ★★★★☆

A small-town Southern courthouse like the ones where A Time for Mercy is set.

A judge he can’t say no to

Capital murder, really? Unsurprisingly, the sheriff and all his other deputies, the city police, the D.A., Kofer’s family, and nearly everyone else in town think it is. The evidence is clear: Drew killed Kofer. But Judge Omar Noose, determined to run a fair trial, presses Jake Brigance into service to defend the boy. And Jake is unable to say no to the judge because he can’t afford to alienate the man. He’s the plaintiff’s attorney in a wrongful death case before Judge Noose that promises to earn him the big money he needs to move his family out of a hand-to-mouth existence.

A defense that seems impossible to win

Jake is now stuck with mounting a defense that seems impossible to win. Worse, his many friends in the sheriff’s department and the city police shun him, he’s gaining no new paying clients, and Jake and his wife start receiving threatening phone calls. He’s left virtually alone, supported only by his brilliant paralegal secretary and two friendly lawyers. And together they set out to build a case, working methodically, with little hope they will be able to prevent Drew from going to the gas chamber. It’s the perfect setup for a gripping courtroom thriller.

If the daunting character of the challenge rings a bell, you’ve probably seen it from Grisham before. Like so many of his other heroes, Jake Brigance will—we just know it!—triumph against great odds.

Race relations in a changing South

Like so many, perhaps all, white liberal Southerners, John Grisham is intensely aware of race relations. He understands, as so many do, that racial animus taints society in many ways, not all of them obvious. The Kofer case seems insulated from that influence: both Kofer and Drew are white. But it’s inevitable that much of the fury directed at Jake for defending the boy comes from his success in securing a not-guilty verdict for Carl Lee Hailey five years earlier in another complex murder case. Hailey is African-American.

However, change has come to the South. Blatant, out-front racism has mostly been driven underground in Clanton:

  • The African-American Sheriff, Ozzie Walls, had been reelected several times by huge margins—but he was “the only black sheriff in Mississippi and the first ever from a predominantly white county.” Walls was widely liked and respected in town.
  • Jake’s twenty-six-year-old secretary, first hired as an intern, proves to be brilliant and a lucid writer. She’s headed off to law school, vowing to return as Jake’s partner. Portia Lang is African-American.
  • When an anonymous caller Portia answers uses the N-word, Jake apologizes. Portia’s “heard it before and I’m sure I’ll hear it again.” But “twelve years earlier when Jake finished law school and arrived in Clanton as the rookie, the word was commonly used by white lawyers and judges as they gossiped and told jokes and even did their business without an audience. Now, though, in 1990, its usage was fading and it was deemed improper, even low-class, to use it.”

For additional reading

Like nearly every other fan of John Grisham’s work, I’ve read far too many of his novels and for far too long a time to possibly list them all. Among those I’ve reviewed is the previous book in the Jake Brigance series, Sycamore Row (The belated sequel to John Grisham’s breakthrough first novel).

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