By Blake Baxter
The literati has never fully embraced John Grisham. With a few exceptions over the years, his work has generally been considered too popular and too-genre-y to be considered serious literary fiction. But that has never seemed to matter much. When you find a niche in literature, in film, in another facet of pop culture, or really in anything in life, you have a good chance of success. And no one has dominated the niche of the legal thriller like John Grisham has in the past 20-plus years. His latest page-turner, Sycamore Row, is further evidence that Grisham is still the best at what he does.
A proud southerner, Grisham grew up dreaming of playing professional baseball, but instead wound up attending law school at Ole Miss and practicing law throughout the eighties. Amidst his law career he caught wind of a horrific case that provided inspiration for a wild tale of his own. Over three years, he crafted his first novel, a southern courtroom drama about race, revenge and justice. A Time to Kill was published in 1988 to little fanfare. However, his second novel, The Firm, the story of a young lawyer working for a secretly sinister law firm, became a surprise bestseller in 1991, and subsequently even spawned a hit movie, which starred Tom Cruise. Since then, every legal thriller that he has written has become a bestseller. In addition, he has also written a few shorter, non-legal books a series of young adult novels, a non-fiction book and an engaging book of short stories.
A couple years after Grisham became a household name, A Time to Kill was republished; this time becoming a bestseller like the rest of his novels. In 1996, A Time to Kill, too, was adapted into a movie, and similarly became a critical and commercial success. To this day, it is the only John Grisham movie better than the book (there have been seven movies, not counting television series or made-for-TV-movies). It’s not as well written as his later works, which is to be expected, considering Grisham’s inexperience as a novelist at the time. It’s uneven. Some characters were not as fleshed out as they needed to be in order to make everything that happens in the novel convincingly come together. The movie, which starred a young Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson and featured a great supporting cast, did a good job of correcting some of these things. Regardless, the novel in itself featured a gripping story, a vivid setting and a wonderfully colorful and memorable cast of characters.
It is hard to believe, but Sycamore Row is Grisham’s first sequel in his career. It takes readers back to the fictitious small town of Clanton, Mississippi, where three-years earlier attorney Jake Brigance won the biggest case of his career. But it came at an undoubtedly hefty price. His family’s home was burned down by bigots, and they have been living in fear of their safety ever since. It is 1987 now, and at the age of 35, Jake’s moment in the spotlight has likely come and gone, but that won’t deter him from pursuing big cases and dreaming of more courtroom glory. He, however, never expected a high profile and controversial case to just fall into his lap. But against the odds, one does, and it makes for another fascinating pursuit of justice.
Seth Hubbard is a dying, 71 year old man. He is secretly worth a fortune, but has more or less lived a miserable life. He purportedly had a rough childhood, lost plenty in two different divorces and never had close relationships with his children or grandchildren. Still though, his community finds it pretty surprising when he makes a noose and hangs himself from a tree. But that is nothing compared to the shock of whom he left his inheritance to in his will. In his will – and in a very clear and concise letter addressed to Jake – Seth states that the church and his long-lost brother are to each get 5%, while his unassuming black housekeeper, Lettie Lang, gets 90%. His children and grandchildren, however, are explicitly cut out and get nothing.
The language of the will couldn’t be anymore clear, but Seth knows that there will be a nasty fight over whether or not he had the mental facilities to be making such a momentous decision. And so, he instructs Jake to fight tooth and nail to see that his last wishes are honored. To do so, he will have to face unscrupulous but skilled, big-city attorney, an arrogant, though mostly fair judge, and a boatload of preconceived notions in a town with a history of rocky race relations. Grisham cannily joins Jake with a ragtag team of friends both new and old. Just to name a few, Sycamore Row features the welcome return of the overweight and overbearing divorce attorney, Harry Rex Vonner, and Jake’s alcoholic mentor, Lucien Wilbanks, as well as Willie Traynor, the protagonist of Grisham’s 2004 novel The Last Juror.
The southern flavor and colorful characters from the first story return but it has a different feel than the first time around. This story benefits from the increased distance between the time that it is set and the time that it was written. Whereas the (fictional) events of A Time to Kill occurred not long before the story’s publication, its sequel allows readers to step into a world far removed from our own, without being too nostalgic about it. Its subject matter is as adult as the first one was, but it is intentionally more ambiguous. A Time to Kill, while certainly exciting and thought provoking for its time, looks a little more black and white through the prism of today’s day and age; of course a black girl who was raped should be regarded the same way as a white girl who was raped! Sycamore Row definitely has a lot to do with race, but it is more about money and a whole slew of moral and ethical questions concerning obligations of inheritance. Should Seth have left money for his children? Is Jake really doing the noble thing in fighting for the old, sick man’s last wishes? Revelations of the town’s history undercut some of these questions towards the end of the novel, but they are provoked nonetheless.
In addition to the ambiguous subject matter, the novel benefits from having a more mature and less self-centered Jake Brigance and a more realistic villain than some of his other stories. There aren’t any Klansmen or shadowy assassins running around, and there aren’t any billionaire stockholders rigging elections, just bad husbands, crooked lawyers and ghosts of a prejudiced past. (Not to mention you know the protagonists aren’t going to just run off to an island, away from their problems.) None of which is to say that it’s perfect, of course. In some ways it’s predictable – you know exactly which pieces will come together – but Grisham’s masterful execution will make you want to keep reading. And, because, you know, you have to make sure the king of the legal thriller still knows what he’s doing. But don’t worry, he does.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.