John Grisham’s “Sycamore Row” revisits Clanton, Miss., the site of his first and still most famous book, “A Time to Kill.” Just three years have passed since young Jake Brigance crusaded his way through Clanton’s most racially inflammatory murder trial. It is 1988, and Jake now has a small practice, a big reputation and a housing problem created when Ku Klux Klan members torched his lovingly restored Victorian home.
Mr. Grisham does not seem to have revisited his most popular character for the usual writerly reason: desperation. The unstoppable Energizer Bunny of legal fiction, Mr. Grisham does not need to cannibalize old hits to create new ones. Instead, “Sycamore Row” sets Jake in the midst of what is now a historical novel, resurrecting the Clanton of 25 years ago. That gives the author a new perspective on the town’s racial tensions and a chance to resurrect Jake, who by now feels like an old friend. All it takes is one big twist of fate, and Jake is back on center stage.
The twist is the suicide of a wealthy white man named Henry Seth Hubbard. He had a will that made beneficiaries of his two grown children, Ramona and Herschel. But on the last day of his life, Hubbard supposedly changed his mind. An envelope is delivered to Jake’s office containing a final, handwritten will that reverses the first one. Hubbard’s primary beneficiary is now Lettie Lang, his housekeeper, who is black and spent a lot of time alone with him. And Hubbard anticipates his family’s outrage at this move. “These are not nice people and they will fight, so get ready,” he warns. “Fight them, Mr. Brigance, to the bitter end.”
The legal issues raised by two differing wills, and the smell of money, invite a large crew of eager lawyers into the fight. Mr. Grisham’s gift for manipulating and explicating legal battles makes this multifaceted one satisfyingly cagey. But a curious phenomenon makes it too easy to be distracted from a Grisham novel in its early stages, before the fight really gets rolling. It’s not the fault of Mr. Grisham’s clean and clear prose. It’s because he is accurately capturing all the tedium, repetition, red tape and soporific rhetoric with which lawyers contend. If they must plod through discovery and suffer death by deposition, readers do too.
Mr. Grisham knows what lawyers have been taught to do. More important, he also knows how they actually behave. Although “Sycamore Row” is a bit crude at first, treating Lettie as a long-suffering saint and the Hubbards as racists who neither know or care when they insult her, it snaps into shape as soon as Clantonites realize how high the stakes are in this fight. Lettie’s potential inheritance would make a black maid the richest woman in Mr. Grisham’s Ford County. And the Ford County of 1988 is not about to let that happen.
Mr. Grisham lets the Hubbards stay happily oblivious for a while, as Jake, chosen by Hubbard as his executor, quietly tracks down the dead man’s assets. Yes, this is a book about probate and appraisals and other nonscintillating processes that a will sets in motion. But it is also about the feeding frenzy that initially surrounds the Hubbards, who have no idea a second will exists. The jolt of that potentially more valid will sends shysters heading for Lettie, who is almost too shocked to understand her situation. Mr. Grisham cleverly positions Jake in the middle, as a lawyer well liked by the judge in the case, Reuben Attlee. Judge Attlee and other holdovers from “A Time to Kill” become strong, calculating characters in this book, too.
“Everything is about race in Mississippi,” Jake is told by Lucien Wilbanks, a disbarred lawyer and drunk who won’t stay out of the case — or out of Jake’s office, since Lucien is the landlord. Regardless of whether Lucien has that right, everything in “Sycamore Row” is about racial nuances and how they play. Lettie becomes shark bait for the high-profile black lawyer Booker Sistrunk, “an infamous bomb thrower” with an imposingly flashy style. He drives a Rolls-Royce, grandstands in the courtroom and seems guaranteed to alienate any white jurors, in the case where the jury will be mostly white. Jury selection is one more legal process that is described here in all of its authentically monotonous yet, from the lawyers’ standpoints, make-or-break detail. Mr. Grisham prefers grinding reality to a hyped-up sense of excitement.
Jake is blindsided with realizations that his actions can cause trouble, too. Jake makes one well-intentioned but bad mistake by helping Lettie’s husband, who proves so disreputable and dangerous that Jake can be tainted by even a distant connection. He is warned not to find too nice a place for his family to live; any suggestion that Jake is being well paid for his efforts could also taint him. And he fails to match the opposing lawyers’ research capabilities — which means he can be gobsmacked in the courtroom by a witness who was unknown to him beforehand. Mr. Grisham details the dirty tricks, data dumping and witness dumping, routinely used by a large legal team to flummox the other side.
As “Sycamore Row” finally reaches its trial phase, the author hits his full stride. He knows the courtroom inside out, and he helpfully describes each little step of these proceedings. Even if sharp-eyed readers already know how the book’s surprises may arise — has there ever been a long-lost relative who did not show up in a work of legal fiction? — they will still miss the final whammy that Mr. Grisham has in store. Hubbard hanged himself from a Sycamore tree, but that is not why this book is called “Sycamore Row.”
“We haven’t had this much excitement since the Hailey trial,” says Dell, the local waitress, speaking of the sparks that flew in Mr. Grisham’s 1989 debut. She’s right. And this may not be the end of it. Mr. Grisham leaves Jake ready and waiting to be seen again.
More Vexing Challenges for That Mississippi Lawyer
‘Sycamore Row,’ by John Grisham
October 30, 2013
The New York Times