John Grisham has become one of the world’s best-selling authors of crime and suspense novels, not by creating a continuing series based on the exploits of a quirky hero-investigator (think Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers) but by writing stories based on a fresh cast of characters nearly every time around. But even Grisham couldn’t resist the temptation to revisit the world of Jake Brigance, the cocky young lawyer at the center of the action in his breakthrough first novel, A Time to Kill.
Sycamore Row (Jake Brigance #2) by John Grisham @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Published nearly a quarter-century ago and set in the early to mid- 1980s, A Time to Kill was a sensational courtroom drama about race in the Deep South during a time of change. Jake defends a Black Vietnam veteran, Carl Lee Hailey, who executes the drug-addled rapists of his child on the steps of the courthouse in a small Mississippi town named Clanton. The Ku Klux Klan surges back into action, and the town soon is roiled by controversy and violence.
Sycamore Row follows Jake Brigance through a trial three years after his high-profile success in the Hailey case. A reclusive old white man whom nobody in town seems to know has hanged himself on a tree on his farm and left a handwritten will leaving the bulk of his considerable estate to the Black housekeeper and caregiver who has worked for him for the past three years. The will turns up in Jake’s mail a day before the old man’s funeral with a note naming Jake as attorney for the estate, with explicit instructions to prevent any money going to the old man’s money-grubbing family. Soon, racial tensions are reawakened, putting Jake at a disadvantage facing a jury that consists of two Blacks and 10 whites.
Grisham rolls out his story with a sure hand, building suspense as nearly a dozen other lawyers pile onto the controversy and their investigators turn up unflattering information about both the deceased and his would-be beneficiary. The author’s spare, no-nonsense prose relentlessly drives the reader forward through the unpredictable twists and turns of a tale that reflects the changing reality of life in the Deep South. Sycamore Row stands as both a worthy sequel to A Time to Kill and as a fine contribution to the literature about race in America.
For additional reading
Previously, I reviewed another of John Grisham’s novels at Another fiendishly clever John Grisham novel. And, later, I reviewed the subsequent entry in the Jake Brigance series, A Time for Mercy (Jake Brigance #3) by John Grisham (John Grisham revisits Clanton, Mississippi in a gripping courtroom thriller).
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