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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Letter from a Dead Man Plunges Jack Brigance into A Bloody Chapter in Southern History


466 pages
ISBN: 0385537131
( Doubleday, Oct. 22, 2013)
Random House LLC
ASIN: B00CNQ7HAU

Jack Brigance, the small town attorney created by John Grisham in his first book, ATime to Kill, is back. Even though the holiday is more than a month away, Grisham fans should be walking around with big Christmas grins on their faces.

Grisham's latest novel, Sycamore Row, a sequel of sorts to his first book, is set three years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial that brought Brigance a measure of notoriety but little else. The young lawyer still lives with his wife, Carla, and daughter, Hannah, in Ford County, Mississippi, in a rural redoubt called Clanton. The Brigances are wedged into a cramped rental because their family home, firebombed by Klansmen during the first book, has never been replaced: Jake's insurance carrier didn't even offer him enough money to pay off the two outstanding mortgages on the property, let alone rebuild it.

Brigance is hustling work where he can: "chasing ambulances" as he puts it in hope of turning up a client or two. He spends his time defending drunk drivers, handling minor civil disputes and pursuing a lawsuit against the insurance company that covered the home that was destroyed by Klansmen in A Time to Kill

Carla, a teacher, holds the family together with her salary -- barely -- and Jake is depressed and discouraged. He is literally living from hand to mouth, and is behind in his rent to Lucien Willibanks, the disbarred alcoholic who owns the building that houses his offices.

Then out of the blue Jake gets a posthumous letter from a dead man, Seth Hubbard, a man he never even meet when Hubbard was alive. Hubbard, a businessman and terminal cancer victim who has just hanged himself to end his pain and misery, says in the note that he wants Brigance to defend a will he wrote secretly only a few days earlier in which he leaves almost his entire $24 million estate to Lettie Lang, the black woman who has worked as his housekeeper for the last three years.

Jake takes the case, looking forward to a temporary respite from his financial problems. But almost immediately vultures begin to circle in the form of a veritable army of lawyers representing the dead man's children and grandchildren, all of whom have been cut out of the Hubbard will without a penny.

In order to defend the will and insure the dead man's wishes are enforced, Jake must not only learn why Hubbard left almost his entire fortune to Lettie, but he must try to track down Ancil Hubbard, the dead man's brother, who fled the area when he was only sixteen after he and Seth were witnesses to something so shocking and horrible that Ancil could no longer bear to remain in Ford County.

Much of Sycamore Row is taken up exploring the strained relationships between Hubbard and his kin and describing the often fractious nature of Lettie Lang's marriage to Simeon, her petty criminal husband. Lucien, fascinated by the case, emerges from his self-imposed exile from the community and the law to research the property transactions behind Seth Hubbard's massive holdings and to search for Hubbard's long-missing brother. 

There is plenty of jousting between Jake and the other lawyers, who engineer a legal bushwhacking by withholding the identity of two key witnesses until late in the trial -- a dirty trick, incidentally, that would probably be blocked by the trial judge in almost any jurisdiction.

The last thirty pages of the book is largely taken up with courtroom maneuverings and Grisham, as usual, handles them superbly. One surprise twist is piled on another as the book dashes to its conclusion, and, although Jake is able to take advantage of a last minute development that would be even less likely to be tolerated by a trial judge, the book rolls to a shocking but satisfying conclusion.

John Grisham returns to tiny Clanton, Mississippi in his latest, "Sycamore Row."

As I have already noted, to call some of the legal stratagems described in Sycamore Row fantastic is an understatement. Key elements of the plot turn on sheer coincidence, which weakens the story and distracts the reader from what is otherwise an excellent bit of storytelling.

On the other hand, this is fiction, not a how-to on court procedure, and Grisham makes a real effort to make the unlikelier elements of his novel believable by crafting the book's back story carefully, making the main characters' motivations clear and acknowledging the occasions when he stretches the reader's credulity.  This effort ameliorates the story's weaknesses considerably.

But what really sells Sycamore Row is the careful manner in which Grisham has drawn his characters. Even those who have minor cameo roles are presented as individuals with personal quirks and idiosyncratic speech patterns. It would have been easy to write the novel without these bits of detail and description, sticking more strictly to the legal procedure and dumping in a platoon of characters whose roles in moving the story forward are relatively minor. 

But if he had followed that path, Sycamore Row wouldn't be the same book -- and it wouldn't be nearly as good.


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