Cover image of "Sycamore Row," sequel to John Grisham's breakthrough novel

John Grisham has become one of the world’s best-selling authors of crime and suspense novels. But he hasn’t accomplished this 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, or John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport.) Instead, he typically writes 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. And he has since followed these two bestselling novels with two others featuring the resourceful (and no longer quite so young) Jake Brigance.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

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 (Jake Brigance #2) by John Grisham (2013) 464 pages ★★★★☆

Row of sycamore trees like those in the title of this novel
Sycamore trees. Image: Reiman Gardens

A consequential trial three years after his breakthrough success

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.

About the author

Photo of John Grisham, author of John Grisham's breakthrough novel
John Grisham in 2013. Image: Encyclopedia Britannica

John Grisham is one of the world’s most-read—and highest-paid—authors. (The 300 million books he’s sold built his net worth to an estimated $400 million.) Grisham is the author of twenty-nine adult novels, seven young-adult novels, and three nonfiction books.

Grisham was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1955 to a construction worker and cotton farmer and a homemaker. He attended several small Mississippi colleges before eventually graduating from Mississippi State University with a degree in accounting. Later he attended the University of Mississippi Law School, earning a JD degree. He practiced law for a decade and gained election to the Mississippi House of Representatives, where he served from 1983 to 1990. He gave up practicing law when his second novel, The Firm, became a bestseller. Grisham is a Democrat. He opposes the death penalty and supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. Grisham has been married since 1981. He and his wife have two children.

This is one of the many Good books about racism. It’s also one of the Great courtroom dramas.

I’ve reviewed sixteen other John Grisham novels, including both A Time for Mercy – Jake Brigance #3 (John Grisham revisits Clanton, Mississippi in a gripping courtroom thriller) and Sparring Partners – Jake Brigance #4 (John Grisham shows lawyers behaving badly). You can access any of the other reviews by typing the author’s name into the search field in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page.

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