Sycamore Row by John Grisham isn’t a book I would normally pick up. But asked to review it for radio and aware of Grisham’s phenomenal success — the man has sold 250 million books — I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.
Sycamore Row is the sequel to Grisham’s first novel, A Time To Kill, published in 1989 and made into a film in 1996. With Sycamore Row running to 447 pages, I didn’t have time to brush up on the 655-page A Time To Kill as well, and opted to watch the movie instead.
A Time To Kill is the story of how white lawyer Jake Brigance defends black man Carl Lee Hailey before an all-white jury in Ford County, Mississippi, after Hailey kills the two white men responsible for the rape and attempted murder of his 10-year-old daughter. The case sees a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan violence in Ford County, Brigance and his family are threatened, and their house is burned down. But — spoiler alert — he wins the case.
Sycamore Row is set three years later. Jake’s family is living in rented accommodation, the insurance claim on their house still unresolved. At thirty-five, Jake remains ‘as ambitious as ever’, though worries the pinnacle of his career is already behind him.
The novel starts strongly with the suicide by hanging of local businessman, Seth Hubbard. A misanthrope with terminal cancer, the circumstances of Hubbard’s death prove uncomplicated. Not so the handwritten will that turns up in Jake Brigance’s in-tray the day after Hubbard’s death.
In an accompanying letter appointing Jake as attorney for his estate, Hubbard admits he has specifically cut out his two adult children, and urges Jake to ‘fight them…to the bitter end.’ The will leaves ninety per cent of Hubbard’s sizeable fortune to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang, ‘as thanks for her dedicated service and friendship.’
Jake is fired up by the prospect of defending the will, both for the thrill it will give him to pursue it before a jury, and for the money to be made in what promises to be a drawn out battle. Everyone is intrigued by the question of why Hubbard would leave his fortune to Lettie, not least of all the main beneficiary herself. Rumours abound about the nature of their relationship, despite Lang’s insistence that Hubbard was undemonstrative, even secretive and treated her as nothing more than a valued employee.
With Hubbard’s children ‘lawyered up’, and Lang inundated by both extended family members and ambitious black lawyers, Brigance has his work cut out for him. He assembles a team comprising his old boss, disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, Lettie’s daughter Portia, fresh out of the army, and his friend and fellow lawyer Harry Rex Vonner to defend the dead man’s wishes.
What follows is an entertaining, at times gripping legal thriller filled with twists and turns, and featuring an impressive ensemble cast. It is sure to satisfy Grisham’s fans. However, for me the novel’s initial promise petered out as it headed to a predictable conclusion and a too-neat ending.
Grisham seems to think the same racist violence that shocked readers in 1989 will shock us now. But while the events described in Sycamore Row are awful, they are no longer shocking because we know the terrain. The racist violence in A Time To Kill was up front and frightening; in Sycamore Row it feels more like a footnote.
It’s more of the same for a different time.
Speaking of time, while Sycamore Row might be set three years after A Time To Kill, twenty-four years have passed in real time between books and, frankly, it shows. The odd anachronism — like having Portia describe her office in Jake’s law firm as ‘awesome’ — is easily forgiven. Less so, the sense Grisham has transposed contemporary values on late-1980s Ford County. As one blogger I follow wrote in her review,
it seems as if the gap is more like the 24 years that actually exists between the two books. Here, not only is there no threat of the Ku Klux Klan and no real fear of race-related violence, but even the language has changed… Three years on, not only do people not use that [n-]word any longer, but Portia is actually shocked by it on the one occasion it comes up. What happened in those three years to entirely change the culture and attitudes of this small town?
It’s a good question.
Ultimately, watching the Hollywood version of A Time To Kill proved appropriate as Sycamore Row is entertaining in the same way as a Hollywood blockbuster: a slick production with appealing characters in attractive settings, a heavy handed message about right and wrong, and a feel-good finish that ties up all loose ends.
Personally, I prefer thrillers that are more nuanced and characters who don’t always succeed. But given Grisham’s sales figures, I’m clearly in a minority.
Sycamore Row by John Grisham (2013) is published in Australia by Hachette.
Listen to my review on Radio National Books and Arts here.