Serial characters have become so commonplace in modern fiction that it’s really surprising the practice has managed to elude John Grisham until now. As such, its fitting he begin the process by recalling the events of his first novel, A Time To Kill, nearly a quarter-century ago. Many heralded the book as a modern recasting of To Kill A Mockingbird, with inexperienced “street lawyer” Jake Brigance playing the Atticus Finch role in a southern town beset with deep-rooted racist animosity. There Grisham altered Harper Lee’s central theme of justice amidst Southern Racism from false accusation to retribution, ‘updating’ Tom Robinson’s innocence to an unrepentant Carl Lee Hailey’s ultimate revenge against the two white men who savaged his daughter.
Sycamore Row comes a scant 24 years later, which might have been the longest between-sequel time span of the year had Stephen King not published Doctor Sleep (an astonishing 37 years after The Shining), and picks up three years after the events of the infamous Carl Lee Hailey trial.
Successful timber man Seth Hubbard, dying of lung cancer and given just weeks to live, drafts a last-minute holographic (self-written) will, one that specifically excludes both his children and grandchildren from inheriting anything. Rather, he deeds 90% of his $24 million dollar estate to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang, a woman he’s known only a few short years. Seth further complicates things by hanging himself, but not before sending the Law Office of Jake Brigance a specific set of instructions on how to probate his final wishes.
At issue was Hubbard’s “testamentary capacity”, his legal and mental state, at the time he wrote this second will. A more likely scenario, says his shunned kinfolk, is that dear old dad fell under the lascivious spell of Mrs. Lang, denying them of their rightful inheritance.
In truth, Sycamore Row is less a sequel and more a continuation of the adventures of Mr. Brigance. And like King, Grisham takes the opportunity to populate his growing universe of characters, fleshing out returning faces like Sheriff Ozzie Walls, one of two black sheriffs in the state, or Jack’s alcoholic – and disbarred – role model Lucien Wilbanks, who still might have a ace or two up his sleeves the way disbarred, boozy lawyers always do.
White carnage – particularly that of the post-Reconstruction Klan – has evolved into such an easy trope in fiction, one designed to elicit immediate sympathy from readers (and literary critics), lest they find themselves accused of insensitivity. Since Mockingbird the glut of such exploitative fiction, many which shield themselves from honest criticism under the guise of racially charged invective, the type of which ‘the other side’ couldn’t possibly understand. That so many of them concentrate on similar themes and conclusions cannot be a coincidence; they have become, in a word, tiresome.
Thank goodness Sycamore Row largely avoids this pitfalls, and is at its best when delving into Hubbard’s backstory, retracing the events that might have led a curmudgeonly old coot to excise his familial obligations for what someone he barely knew. While Grisham’s characterizations of the different family members borders on caricature (see Million Dollar Baby), there’s a undeniable deliciousness to how the inevitable events begin to unravel in the only way they could. Original concepts may never have been Grisham’s strong suit, but few writers in popular legal fiction know how to mix ‘em up the way he can.
I wouldn’t reveal the Big Twist for the world here, but it does come off as perfunctory, almost a requirement given the enormous build up that precedes it. My assumption is that Grisham feels this revelation more powerful than it actually is, at least in terms of racially inherited sins of a despicable past. Note the book’s setting and timeframe, 1988 Mississippi, both of which are necessary for the outcome to be logistically plausible. That fiction should be a calculated thing is no surprise, but as played here it comes perilously close to collective White Guilt.
That aside, Grisham’s prose is as smooth as ever, delivered with his familiar restraint that keeps the plot churning along while making otherwise impenetrable legalese understandable. While interceding novels between A Time to Kill and now Sycamore Row haven’t always pleased the literary set, his return to such familiar territory seems to have rekindled the author’s desire to release fiction with a purpose. While it lacks the cinematic immediacy of its predecessor, it also lacks its inherited cultural baggage and questionable morality. In this way its the superior story. Unfinished and largely irrelevant subplots aside, this is one of Grisham’s better and more thoughtfully written books to come along in some time.