by John Grisham, Doubleday, 2013, 447 pages, $28.95.
John Grisham is brilliantly adept at bringing the contemporary legal thriller to life. But when he steps outside his usual formula (feisty young attorney battles corrupt law firm/insurance company/government agency) he often achieves something singular.
It has been 25 years since “A Time to Kill,” his shattering first novel that didn’t find its audience until the publication of “The Firm,” his first popular piece. From that time, Grisham has rarely disappointed, but admirers of that first, almost personal, novel have wanted another. “Sycamore Row” is that book.
It is late fall 1988, three years since Jake Brigance successfully defended Carl Lee Hailey, the black man accused of murdering the white men who attacked his young daughter in a sleepy Mississippi town. Times have been rough for Jake and his family. He now lives in a rental house, and he has bills to pay. The insurance company is slow to settle the claim for his home that was burned to the ground during the Hailey trial. He still carries a gun, for he must be constantly vigilant.
Now Jake and Clanton, Miss., face another controversy.
Wealthy old Seth Hubbard, eaten up with cancer, makes out a new, handwritten will that counters the conditions of his first will, one that distributes his wealth to his estranged family members. Then he hangs himself from a sycamore tree on the outskirts of town.
Immediately after Hubbard’s death, a letter arrives making Jake the new lawyer for the Hubbard estate valued at $24 million. Jake has never met Hubbard, and the new will leaves everything to Lettie Lang, Hubbard’s black caregiver of three years.
Questions abound. Why did Hubbard hang himself? Why did he leave everything to his black housekeeper? Were they having an affair? Did his medical treatment keep him from thinking clearly?
Then there’s the nagging question about a parcel of land. Portia, Jake’s new assistant and Lettie’s daughter, puts it this way: “How could a black man win a lawsuit over land in the 1920s in Mississippi? Think about it, Jake. A white landowner hired the biggest law firm in town, one with all the power and connections, to sue some poor black man over a property dispute. And the black man won.”
It all comes together in a devastating climax that echoes “A Time to Kill.” Characters from that novel help or hinder Jake. Lucien Wilbanks, Jake’s mentor, returns to the offices he still rents Jake. Harry Rex Vonner, divorce lawyer to nearly anyone, rids Jake of impediments. Klan members who burned Jake’s home lurk at the novel’s periphery. And John Grisham himself remains bemused by the logic and illogic of Mississippi law.
“Sycamore Row” is a genuine page-turner, a gripping way to spend a long weekend. It is at the same time one of John Grisham’s best novels, an intimate response to his beloved Mississippi.
Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.