A Time for Mercy
© 2020 John Grisham
A woman lies beaten and unconscious in the kitchen; her children quiver in fear in a back room while the man they’re terrorized by lies in a drunken stupor in his bedroom. A sheriff’s deputy, he always wiggles free of abuse charges. But he stirs, as if to rise, and a young boy makes a fateful decision. A Time for Mercy returns readers to Clanton, Mississippi, with a morally challenging case reminiscent of A Time to Kill. Unlike A Time to Kill, however, Mercy simply ends rather than concludes; those who find themselves absorbed by the drama will leave frustrated at the lack of real resolution. Although a welcome return to Clanton, Mercy has its limits.
In Grisham’s first-ever novel, a man took justice into his own hands and shot two cretins who raped and beat his daughter, who had been released by a biased jury. Young Jake Brigance took on the man’s defense, at considerable risk to both himself and his family, and prevailed. Now he’s at it again, defending a young teenager who believed his mother had been killed by her abusive boyfriend, the same boyfriend who had also repeatedly raped his sister. That teenager, Drew Gamble, also took justice into his own hands and (contra Bob Marley) shot the sheriff’s deputy. Clanton is again sharply divided, though this time they’re largely against Brigance’s client: although the deceased deputy was known as a drunk hell-raiser on his off-time, on-duty he was one of the department’s best. Brigance finds former friends giving him the cold shoulder, and is harassed at length by the deputy’s ornery and combative family.
My enthusiasm for Grisham has waned considerably over the years, in part because he’s slowly morphing into James Patterson, pumping out too many books without enough polish. Mercy, for instance, meanders all over the place: we spent a considerable amount of time focusing on another case Jake is involved in, when it goes absolutely nowhere in the timeframe of the novel. This section introduces a considerably interesting sideline when we learn that the golden boy, the Captain America of the law office Jake Brigance, has committed a bit of an ethics violation in discovering a potentially destructive witness to his case, then not sharing knowledge of this witness with the prosecution. The sudden exposure of this fact further isolates Jake, but it never comes up again.
What saves Mercy, as much as it is saved, is the inherent moral interest of the case: yes, Drew did wrong in murdering a violent and angry drunk in cold blood..but boy, if ever a man needed killin’, the victim did. The reader can’t help but be a sympathetic to both sides, and the way Grisham ends things is frustrating because there’s no real ending as such, no resolution. Mercy is also greatly supported by virtue of being a Clanton, MS novel, so that regular Grisham readers will feel themselves surrounded by old friends and stories. We know the characters in this novel, without needing introductions; we know the story of the town and even of Jake’s house, because Grisham has developed them in so many other books (The Summons, The Last Juror, Sycamore Row, etc). This also allows Grisham to be a bit lazy, and he confesses in the afterword that he has — not even bothering to re-read his Clanton books, but relying on the memory of those who have. Frankly, it’s a little insulting to the reader that Grisham can’t be bothered, but we keep buyin’ them. (Or, in my case, relatives keep buying them and giving them to me as Christmas presents, because my willingness to spend money on Grisham stopped in 2007/2008 or so.)