Monday, June 14, 2021

Book Review: Jake Brigance Series (A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row and A Time for Mercy) by John Grisham

In my mid-teens, I graduated from Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys to John Grisham novels completely bypassing the Mills & Boon phase that most of my friends were into at the time. There was a tiny library near my house and I'd walk over there pretty much whenever I had free time to spare to check out the fiction section (still remains my favorite genre of books!). I clearly remember the first adult fiction novel that I read which was 'The Client' by John Grisham. I recall being captivated by the suspense, intensity and plot twists which I soon recognized to be the hallmark of one of America's favourite storytellers. After reading a couple of his legal thrillers such as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, I moved on to other authors like Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele and Michael Crichton whose novels took up the remainder of my teenage years. 

I hadn't read John Grisham in many years. Recently, I received a recommendation for the Jake Brigance Series by John Grisham which consisted of three novels - A Time to Kill (1989), Sycamore Row (2013) and A Time for Mercy (2020). I finished all three books in a span of 10 days which only happens when I willingly devote every single second of my spare time towards reading (always a good sign for the imminent review!). I was filled with nostalgia after reading Grisham after such a long spell. Although legal thrillers are not my most favourite category of fiction, I do enjoy reading them once in a while. 

John Grisham is no stranger to bibliophiles. He was a practicing lawyer for over a decade but went on to achieve worldwide recognition as an author by carving out his own niche of gripping legal thrillers. Having spent considerable time in the field of law, writing about courtrooms, juries and legal tussles come naturally to him and when he bases his stories on his native turf, the obvious personal touches make them that much more appealing. It is no wonder John Grisham is considered one of the best thriller writers alive.

This series features main protagonist Jake Brigance a 'street lawyer' in the fictional town of Clanton in the equally fictional Ford County, Mississippi. All three novels are courtroom dramas and in-keeping with the time and location they are set in, tackle sensitive subjects like racism, segregation, sexism as well as bigotry, classism and domestic violence. 

I've tried to keep this review free of any major spoilers!

A Time to Kill 

A Time to Kill was the first novel written by John Grisham. It was rejected by 28 publishers before getting the green signal from an unknown publisher for a modest 5,000 hardback copies. The phenomenal success of Grisham’s subsequent novels got his neglected and almost forgotten first novel the recognition it deserved. It went on to become a best-seller and was even adapted into a film by the same name starring Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, and Samuel Jackson. 

Since its release in the late 80s, A Time to Kill has continued to enthralled readers with its real and raw exploration of race, discrimination, reprisal and justice. Many readers regard it to be one of Grisham’s best novels.

***Plot Summary***

A 10-year old black girl is brutally raped, tortured and left for dead by two drunk rednecks. The child's devastated father, Carl Lee Hailey seeks out revenge by killing the perpetrators in cold blood before the court has produced its verdict. The story is set in the fictional southern town of Clanton in Mississippi in the 80s when discrimination and racial violence is still rife. 

Jake Brigance, a young white attorney is approached to defend Hailey in the capital murder trial. Previously, he had represented Carl Lee’s brother Lester in a murder trial and won it. But in this scenario, the murder is premeditated, there are witnesses, the victims are white and the perpetrator is black which makes the case practically unwinnable. For an upcoming lawyer like Jake, this case could make or break him. Lucien Wilbanks, a disbarred lawyer and Jake's mentor along with Harry Rex Vonner, a divorce lawyer and acquaintance, stick with Jake throughout the searing trial to dispense legal advice. Ellen Roark, a bright law student and anti-death penalty activist, volunteers to work on the case for the defense without compensation. 

The ripples caused by the case turn to tidal waves as it receives unprecedented national attention thus dividing the town along racial lines. The impact of white supremacy reaches a dangerous peak when the Klu Klux Klan gets involved. A bomb is placed in Jake's yard, prospective jury members are threatened, his secretary's husband is attacked, a sniper tries to take shot of him and Ellen is abducted. 

In a divisive society, Jake must save his client from the gas chamber in the face of threats to his family's safety and to his own life. 

My thoughts...

The first chapter of the novel sickened me to my stomach because of the graphic details of the rape. As a parent of young girls, to say it was disturbing would be an understatement. But as the story gained momentum, it took hold of me and I couldn't stop until I had finished. I just HAD to know how it ended! 

The novel opens with a gruesome crime and its aftermath but it also explores the dynamics of a small town, its murky past, its colorful inhabitants and how they interact, think and react in conflicting situations. Jakes attempts to convince a jury with preconceived notions to look beyond the color of a man’s skin and into his heart in order to understand the factors that triggered his criminal actions, irrespective of how wrong they were in the eyes of the law. The ethical dilemma presented is both thought-provoking and soul-stirring at the same time. The courtroom theatrics and rivalry between Jake and the egotistical District Attorney Rufus Buckley are particularly electrifying. 

Reading about the racial tension somewhat reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird. The racism comes through blatantly in the language, people's perceptions and attitudes. The use of the ethnic slur is particularly disturbing. It actually made me contemplate about how life was like for a black person back then. But then again, with the Black Lives Matter protests from 2020 still firmly etched in my mind, I couldn't help but ruminating on the fact that even after so many years, race continues to be an issue. But that's not all. In addition to racial discrimination there is also rampant sexism which is evident not only by the way the victim is treated but also by the silence from the women in the Hailey family and the treatment meted out to Ellen. Even Jake and his cronies have distorted views of women. That is another issue that is relevant even today but fortunately not as glaring as it was back then. 

There is gravity and depth to the plot embedded with compassion, drama and humor which makes for a well-rounded read. Even though it is a legal thriller, you don't have to have an awareness of the US justice system to follow it. I appreciate how the author explains the law in a way that the average reader can understand. 

Fast paced and emotionally-charged, A Time to Kill is a good one time read. 

My rating for this novel is

Sycamore Row

The events in the second novel of the series takes place three years after the sensational trial of Carl Lee Hailey. 'Sycamore Row' is a courtroom drama takes on the subject of a will probate complicated by long-standing and complex race relations and dysfunctional family dynamics. 

***Plot Summary***

An elderly terminally-ill recluse by the name of Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a sycamore tree located on his vast estate leaving behind a fortune. As the estranged family members swoop in like vultures for the spoils, a last minute second handwritten will emerges leaving everything to the black caregiver/housekeeper of the deceased. To make things more challenging, the first will (a more conventional one) that was drawn up by a law firm two years ago, rewards the children and excludes the caregiver. Even without a crime, the case becomes sensational because 24 million is on the line, a sum that is unheard of in Ford County. All parties involved start bracing themselves for an ugly fight in court. 

The logistics of hanging oneself from a tree are not that simple and close examination of the scene reveals that Seth thought of everything. The details of the funeral arrangements and instructions left in his second will are crystal clear and precise. But why would a person completely cut out their family and leave such a staggering amount of wealth to an outsider especially one they had known only for a short time? With an ageing body ravaged by cancer and excruciating pain compounded with pain relieving medication, could Seth's mental faculties have been compromised? Or did the caregiver who happened to be the only person around when Seth changed his will, somehow influence his decision? 

Enterprising lawyer Jake Brigance who is still dining out on the plaudits from the sensational murder trial of Carl Lee Hailey three years earlier is named to defend the controversial second will. Having never met Seth before, Jake is stumped as to why he was chosen. 

Set in the late 80s and in the deep South, Jake must not only represent the client's estate and uphold his last wishes but also convince a predominantly white jury that no ulterior motives were at play. To do this, Jake and his associates must uncover the truth dating back to decades ago that covers up a sinister secret buried deep within the history of the estate.  

My thoughts...

I admire how the author has managed to weave a riveting multi-layered story around the somewhat dull subject of a will probate. With a strong plot, diverse cast of characters and a decent pace, this courtroom drama holds its own to keep the reader interested. The little flourishes that the author uses throughout the novel are a joy to read. I liked reading about the twisted family dynamics of the Hubbard family. The interactions between all the lawyers in the courtroom also made for enjoyable reading particularly the confrontation with the rabble-rousing black lawyer Booker Sistrunk. 

There are a lot of new characters in this book and many are quite disposable (which the author mercifully does dispose of). I loved two of the new characters - Judge Reuben Atlee with his old school thinking and no-nonsense approach to the courtroom proceedings and Portia Lang, the young and sensible daughter of the potential beneficiary. With respect to the characters, I felt like the character evolution of Seth Hubbard with emphasis on his reflections towards the end of his life could have been dealt with better just to lend more credibility to his actions. 

There were definitely some plot twists that took me by surprise but there were other bits that were predictable due to the heavy foreshadowing. The novel started off with good momentum, the middle was a bit meandering and the ending was too abrupt but other than that, it made for an immersive reading experience. 

My rating for this novel is

A Time for Mercy

The events in the third novel of the Jake Brigance series takes place five years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial. 'A Time for Mercy' is also a courtroom drama but it steers away from the subject of race that was at the crux of its predecessors. Instead, the novel explores the deep rooted socio-economic prejudices in society. It also takes a look at the people who abuse and manipulate power. 

***Plot Summary***
The year is 1990 and the place is Clanton, Mississippi. 

Teenagers Drew Gamble and Keira Gamble who have had a chaotic upbringing, find themselves living with (and at the mercy of) their mother’s abusive boyfriend Stuart Kofer who also happens to be a local deputy. One fateful night, their lives change forever when an inebriated and violent Stuart grievously assaults their mother and then sets his sights on them. Not knowing what to do, the timid and fearful Drew shoots Stuart in the head with the latter's firearm. The local sheriff’s office is called in and they are outraged at the murder of one of their own at the hands of a vigilante. Within hours, the conservative town is gripped by a wave of shock over the untimely death of an upstanding officer. In Clanton, the murder of a cop garners very little sympathy for the perpetrator no matter the circumstances. 

The court appoints Jake Brigance to defend the accused but the case comes at a huge personal and professional cost. Unwilling to face backlash for representing a 'cop-killer' and having to deal with the ramifications that can ruin a major money-spinning lawsuit he is handling, Jake tries to bail out. To make matters worse, Jake's uniformed pals in the police department have adopted a code of silence to shield one of their own and are even resentful of Jake's involvement. But with the honorable Judge Noose exerting his considerable influence, Jake has no choice but to initiate the preliminaries. In an unsympathetic community, Jake must overcome major hurdles to grant his client a fair trial. But as he gets sucked deeper into the case, he realizes that there is more than meets the eye which prevents him from turning his back on his client. 

Together with his inner circle of trusted aides comprising of Portia, Harry Rex, Lucien and with moral support from wife Carla, Jake must put together a solid defense that will save a 16-year old from death row and rescue a pitiful family caught in the darkest throes of despair. With the town turning against him, his practice in jeopardy, his finances in tatters and his life in peril, the stakes have never been higher!
My thoughts...

Just like in ‘A Time To Kill’, this novels opens with a bone chilling crime and the resulting tension, dread, and suspense sets the tone for the rest of the novel. From there on, the plot moves along at a brisk pace, only losing steam in the middle but then picks up again towards the end. You have courtroom machinations, internal politics, socially relevant issues, small-town secrets, and plot twists that make for an exciting legal thriller. Grisham throws in several flashbacks from the previous two novels which makes it easier for someone to read this book without having prior knowledge of the important characters and their backstories yet does not come across as too repetitive for those who have read the series in order. 

The case presented in this novel is the open and shut variety. Forensics are never called into question and an in insanity plea can be easily disputed. So the big question is - was pulling the trigger necessary? The author challenges the reader with fundamental questions behind the motives to murder and if it can ever be justified. The answer to this is rarely straightforward and would depend on an individual's background, their upbringing, their religious beliefs and their convictions. By providing detailed insight into the nature of the Gamble family and their background and by making them flawed yet believable and compelling characters, the author brokers sympathy for the killing. 

The pretrial preparation and legal maneuvering makes for interesting reading. The District Attorney Lowell Dyer is not a patch on Rufus Buckley when it comes to giving Jake stiff competition in the courtroom so the more interesting moments in the novel come from the courtroom interactions that happen around Drew, Kiera and Josie. There are endearing recurring characters from both the series predecessors which livens things up a bit. The advantage of having an ensemble of familiar characters is the diversity of insight that helps the reader formulate their own opinions. As with ‘Sycamore Row’ I felt the last few chapters were rushed and I’m not too pleased about the oddly inconclusive ending (there is plenty of fodder for another book!) but overall, this is a riveting and thoroughly enjoyable read. 
Of the three novels in the Jake Brigance series, I am a bit surprised that this one ended up being my favourite!

My rating for this novel is


Hailing from the deep South himself, John Grisham paints a vivid picture of the fictional Southern town of Clanton as gleaned from the climate, language, architecture, cuisine, lifestyle, religion and beliefs of its inhabitants. As you are reading the novels, you can imagine yourself there, hearing the accents and picturing the events unfolding in your mind. Comparing the first two novels with the third one, the advancing timeline also reflects the slightly more progressive attitudes of the people.

Common to the three novels in the Jake Brigance series are the brilliant writing, unembellished prose, evocative descriptions, strong character development and intriguing plots. Another common feature is the furiously paced beginning, the sluggish middle and then the rushed end. As a reader, I find it extremely satisfying when a book ties up the most important (if not all) the loose ends. I don't like to be left with unanswered questions unless I know for sure that there is a sequel in the works! I felt the pacing of the novels in general could have been managed a bit better. 

Among the characters, there are several that are worthy of mention. An idealistic lawyer, good husband and doting father, Jake Brigance doesn't hesitate to do the right thing even at the risk of being ostracized from society or compromising his own safety. Being a liberal in a sea of conservatives, he makes plenty of enemies despite being well liked in his town. He isn't without flaws but his profound sense of integrity makes him a great character. I really hope to read more of him in the future! His wife Carla is a sensible and supportive spouse and I liked that she had a lot more to offer in A Time for Mercy. Lucien Wilbanks, Jake's mentor (and sometimes tormentor!) is an important character who not only dispenses his pearls of wisdom but also contributes to some light-hearted moments. Other memorable characters include the black county sheriff Ozzie Walls who successfully navigates the divide between white and black, Harry Rex Vonner who most often is despicable but he makes himself useful enough times to be forgiven and Portia Lang, the daughter of a client turned secretary turned law student who rises from the shadows of racial and gender discrimination to prove her mettle. 

I recommend the Jake Brigance series for all book lovers and especially for those who have a penchant for legal thrillers. 

As a parting note, did you know that not only does John Grisham write legal thrillers for adults but he writes them for children too? I definitely plan to introduce the Theodore Boon series to my children when they are older. 


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