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Sycamore Row by John Grisham

By Drharrietd @drharrietd

Sycamore Row

After rediscovering John Grisham a couple of weeks ago, I was keen to read some more, and Sycamore Row, his 2013 novel, seemed like the way to go. Here, as the cover proclaims, he has returned to the town and the protagonist of his very first novel, A Time to Kill (1989). This is of course the young lawyer Jake Brigance who, in that novel, won an extraordinary victory in the trial of a black man accused of killing the two white men who raped his young daughter. Here we find Jake a couple of years later, still struggling to make a living in his small law firm, and living in rented accommodation because the Klan burned down his house and the insurance company refuses to pay out. 

Everything changes one day as, at the start of the novel, he gets a letter from Seth Hubbard, a local businessman who has just committed suicide by hanging. The letter contains a handwritten (holographic) will in which he renounces a previous, and totally conventional, will and leaves everything to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang. Such a will is completely legal, and the writer is adamant that he wants Jake to take it on. Naturally enough, the dead man's family is outraged, especially when it emerges that he had a fortune well in excess of $20 million.

And so we find ourselves back in the courtroom, as the family hires a  team of lawyers to argue their case. As each family member has their own lawyer -- the son and daughter and all their children are separately represented -- there are at one time ten lawyers opposing Jake, who only has Lettie's daughter Portia working for him as a paralegal.  Clearly this is a typical David vs Goliath situation, and one in which race is the ultimate issue. Lettie, in her forties, is still attractive, and Seth was known in his day to be quite a womaniser, so one obvious avenue for the opposition to pursue is to try to prove she was his mistress, something she vehemently denies: Seth was dying of cancer, and she became his primary carer. But even if this is accepted, is it really enough for the man to completely cut out his family, unpleasant though they may be, and leave his massive fortune to her? There surely must have been another reason, but Lettie is as much in the dark as anyone else as to what it might have been.

As you can imagine, when the trial gets underway, there are a whole lot of dirty tricks played by the opposition, including manipulating the jury selection (which ends up with just two blacks and ten whites, some deeply prejudiced) and producing surprise witnesses who they somehow manage to get passed by the judge. Everyone is primarily motivated by money, as the winning lawyers will get a huge proportion of the estate. There are propositions to reach a compromise, but Jake holds true to the committment demanded of him in Hubbard's letter -- he is to defend the will against all comers. Needless to say things look very bad for Jake, and needless to say a turn of events towards the end...

In fact, the denouement is hardly a shock, though it's good to have spelled out what we have been suspecting for some time. But that's hardly the point. I love a good legal thriller, and this ticked most of the boxes for me. Well written and entertaining as it is, it's also thought provoking. Of course it takes place over twenty years ago, but it's interesting to see the attitudes of the participants towards racial inequality. At least two of the jury members are strongly prejudiced, and its feared they may manage to swing the verdict. Jake seems comfortable with both white and black people -- one of his friends is the town's black sheriff. But Portia, bright and sensitive though she is, and worldly too, having just spent six years in the army, is still uncomfortable when Jake and Carla have her round for dinner, and so in some ways are they -- both parties realize this is the first time they have actually participated in a private dinner with someone of the opposite race. But the revelation at the end, looking back as it does to a time more than sixty years ago, shocks everyone, even the most bigoted of the jurors. I'm sure this perfectly reflects how things were in the early 1990s, but I wonder how much it's changed since then.

Grisham strikes me as a man of great humanity, and I much admire his seemingly endless supply of good plots. I've just ben offered a review copy of his most recent novel, which I am delighted about. So you haven't heard the end of Grisham yet.

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