© 2013 John Grisham
I have been less than impressed with John Grisham’s books in recent years; The Racketeer made me suspect Grisham or his publishers were merely milking the success of his name. Sycamore Row, however, is a return to the Grisham of yore; set in his fictional Clanton, Mississippi, the site of many of his better novels. A direct sequel to his first novel, and building off many others, Sycamore Row is good work, a legal thriller and a story of restoration and forgiveness.
Sycamore Row picks up only two years after the climax of A Time to Kill, in which Jake Brigance defended a black father who meted out shotgun justice to two white hooligans who beat and raped his young daughter. No one expected Brigance to triumph, not in a town like Clanton where racial tensions ran deep. But he did, and the storied reputation he earned as a progressive lawyer of integrity earned him the job that begins in Sycamore Road. On a fine Sunday morning, a local businessman, Seth Hubbard, is found hanging from a tree on his property; the next day, Brigance receives a letter from the man appointing him the executor of his will, a handwritten document that cuts out the man’s family and leaves his enormous fortune to…the maid. The black maid. Once again Jake is thrown into a controversial trial that some want badly to turn into a good ol’ race war. Jake has no interest in that kind of legal battle; the Hailey trial saw his house and dog perish in flames set by the Ku Klux Klan.
Although the premise sounds a bit much like The Testament — where another rich old man left a handwritten will that disinherited his family and dumped the fortune on someone who no one had ever heard of, namely a missionary in South America — the legal battle turns into a historical mystery that comes into light only late in the novel. The legal question of whether Hubbard was sane enough to produce a legally valid will is resolved not by trial arguments, but by historical fact as the characters struggle to discover what Seth Hubbard knew. The characters include not only Jake, but other Clanton favorites like Harry Rex Vonner, a cranky if wise divorce lawyer, and Lucien Wilbanks, who is the last of a noble clan of gentry, a disbarred southern scion with a taste for sour mash and a proud member of the NAACP — just to rile folks up. Sycamore Row‘s enmeshment with the other Clanton novels will make this work especially attractive for Grisham readers, especially those like myself who’ve been disappointed by works like The Associate and The Racketeer. The presiding judge is Reuben V. Atlee, whose own will will cause a stir in The Summons which it neglects to mention $3 million sitting around in boxes in his basement. Even Willie Traynor, who owned the newspaper whose story was told in The Last Juror, makes a few steady appearances.
For those not enamored of the greater Clanton story, Sycamore Row is still superior to many Grisham works because it’s not idle entertainment. Grisham develops a theme of forgiveness throughout, and the final resolution is magnificent. There’s no preachiness, no lectures from the main characters nor wisdom dispersed from a town savant; forgiveness and restoration are written into the character’s very actions. I was spellbound, and hope Grisham returns to Clanton again.