I’m not a big John Grisham reader — over the years, I’ve probably only picked up two or three of his books and while I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve never really been full-on bitten by the Grisham bug. I’ve seen almost all of the movies based on his novels, though, and typically have liked them better than the books they were based on — as with Stephen King, I’ve often felt Grisham is a better storyteller than he is a writer.
I picked this one up, in fact, because I had just seen the Matthew McConaughey film A Time to Kill recently for the first time in years, and I had forgotten how good it was. For those who have forgotten or never saw the film/read the book, that story is about a young Mississippi lawyer, Jake Brigance, defending a black father, Carl Lee Hailey, on trial for capital murder after killing the two racists who brutally assault his little girl.
Sycamore Row is a sequel to A Time to Kill, picking up a few years later. Brigance is enjoying a booming career, thanks to his success in the Carl Lee Hailey case. Also thanks to that case, he’s become the most trusted advocate for African American families in the region. It’s that reputation that undoubtedly made Seth Hubbard choose Jake to be the executor of his estate — a selection Brigance discovers the day after Hubbard’s suicide, when he receives a letter from the dead man in the mail. The letter tells Jake to read the enclosed document — a handwritten will — but keep it a secret until the day after his funeral. Then Jake is to file it with the court and get ready to defend it tooth and nail. Why? Because first Seth Hubbard changed his mind, and then he changed his will — his estate, all $24 million of it, is no longer to be equally divided up amongst his two (bratty) children, but instead to be given, almost in full, to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang.
CUE SHOCK AND AWE! KABOOM!
As soon as the funeral is over, a huge legal battle erupts as the family members ousted by the new will try to claw their way back in. Their father was dying of cancer and had prescriptions for heavy-duty pain medications; he can’t possibly have been in his right mind when he wrote this cuckoo-crazy new will, they argue. Add to that the fact a previous employer of Lettie’s, another elderly person, had done almost the same thing decades earlier, not to mention Lettie’s no-good husband’s massive gambling debts, and it sure looks like Lettie may have intentionally influenced Seth’s choices at the end when he was blitzed on medication and blinded by intractable pain.
Yet as Jake and his old mentor Lucian look into the past for answers, the reason Hubbard made the decision he did becomes clear. It’s a decision rooted in guilt over an incident a generation before his own, involving both the Hubbard and Lang families, a plot of land, and a hangin’ tree. Over the span of the novel’s story, as more is revealed both about the past and about the present, the question becomes less, “Does Lettie Lang deserve the money?” and more “Will the people of Clanton — white OR black — stand for letting a black woman become the richest person in town?” The answer to the former might be an easy “yes,” but the answer to the latter is a whole lot more complicated — especially in Ford County, Mississippi.
Despite the fact Grisham goes a little overboard here and there with the drudgery of probate law (I mean, thanks for striving for realism, and all, but you could strive for a little less realism next time, sir. Because: zzzzzzz . . .), this is a really entertaining, well-written novel. It clearly sets up the Brigance character for future novels, as well — something I’d definitely welcome after reading this one. Solid, entertaining, and thought-provoking.