2013’s Sycamore Row, John Grisham’s first sequel to A Time to Kill (and first-ever sequel at the time) was a superior effort to the lawyer-turned-author’s 1989 celebrated debut. Grisham not only brought with him decades of experience crafting some of the most timely – and cinematic – lawyerly novels of his generation, but a better sense of pacing and the confidence of a storyteller at the top of his game. It was something different from an author who’d become almost predictable by that point, and one of his very best efforts.
A Time for Mercy, the third in Grisham’s Jake Brigance series, never quite rises to the level of its predecessor in scope or execution, the dueling cases facing Jake this time around never quite feel as vital or satisfying as they should. It may sound like faint praise, but the latest in the continuing saga of Jake Brigance is more standard-issue Grisham legal thriller than one with loftier ambitions, and this is fine. A less preachy, entertaining Grisham novel is always preferable to the alternative.
Set five years after Jake Brigance successfully defended Carl Lee Hailey in the events of A Time to Kill, we return to the dusty streets of 1990 Clanton, Mississippi – and much of Clanton’s residents – for another legal adventure that pushes the moral mettle of our heroic defense attorney to the breaking point in a rapidly changing South.
When the police arrived at the sad little home of deputy sheriff Stu Kofer they weren’t prepared for what they found; his brains splattered over his pillow. The suspect, who already admitted to the killing, is 16-year-old Drew Gamble, son of Stu’s live-in girlfriend Josie, who Stu had just beaten so severely her jaw was dislocated, her face a mess as she now lay asleep in a coma.
Convinced his mother was dead and he and his 14-year-old sister Keira in danger, Drew had taken Stu’s service pistol from its holder, held it to the side of Stu’s head, and pulled the trigger. The off-duty cop was so blackout drunk he probably never felt a thing.
Immediately, the implications of a dead officer promises fireworks across the county, and after exhausting every other possibility of assigning the job of defending the teen the Honorable Omar “Ichabod” Noose, Jake’s curmudgeonly old friend and legal mentor, heavily insists that Jake defend the Gamble boy, temporarily, until a suitable replacement can be found. Having only just gotten his life – and legal practice – back on the mend he’s still walking on eggshells following his successful defense of a black man for killing two white men. Would he go for a similar insanity defense, putting his family at risk once again?
Noose sweetens the deal by promising to circumvent meager public defender pay limits but also hints at greater fortunes. Noose, as it happens, is also the sitting judge on another, much more profitable case, that could help decide the future of Jake’s professional and financial career. How could he possibly refuse?
At 5 foot and 100 pounds soaking wet, Drew looked more prepubescent than adolescent, not anything like you’d expect a premedicated killer to look like. But size and appearance doesn’t matter as much as the facts of the crime, and the law. Despite his age, Drew is eligible for the Death Penalty Enhancement Act, a recent statute change that made those convicted of killing a police officer, whether on duty or not, a capital crime eligible for the death penality. Only two states allowed for this; Texas and Mississippi, and Southern juries don’t take kindly to murdered cops, regardless of circumstances.
We soon learn of the horrors the small Gamble family faced while living under Stu’s roof, which included frequent beatings and worse. Jake agonizes over whether to pursue an insanity defense for his young client, which famously helped keep Carl Lee Haley out of prison, against what he feels is the need for punishment for a crime most certainly committed. Meanwhile, Jake’s other case, one more morally and factually ambiguous, is also eating away at his limited time and sense of righteousness. Can he possibly leverage the two – or risk losing both?
How can the same man who not only successfully defended Carl Lee Haley for murdering two men who brutally raped and nearly killed his daughter have any moral misgivings about offering the same defense to a younger defendant who watched his mother and sister be brutalized in a similar fashion? Does the collective weight, i.e. guilt, of southern injustice only apply to people of a certain color or should there be an added burden of exculpatory factors when a defendant happens to be from a “privileged” class?
These are good questions that might have made a better, more interesting story, and perhaps a younger Grisham might have taken them on. It does, however, feel like Grisham is having fun running through some of the trial’s preliminary hearings, his hero volleying between keeping his diminutive client safe while at the same time covering his own legal priorities in his other, more lucrative, case. I just wish more had come from this interplay.
A common problem with episodic series, book or otherwise, is how easily the central cast can become more important than the plot itself. Grishman tries to leverage both Jake’s personality and the town of Clanton’s growing denizens for the benefit of earning our sympathies, making it something of a character all its own, though more often than not it can feel like he’s aiming for Bedford Falls, but settling for Law & Order.
Perhaps most unsettling is how hard Grisham attempts to introduce racial tensions into a story where there are few, which isn’t surprising given racial agitation is practically his bread and butter. While fans have come to expect this sort of racial muckraking from the man who made literary social justice a cottage industry, it runs the risk of gimmickry.
Sometimes it’s inclusive, such as the plight of Jake’s secretary, Portia Lang, daughter of Sycamore Row’s Lettie Lang, who dreams of becoming the first black female lawyer in Ford County. She’s something of a legal wunderkind, and feels every bit like someone whom Grishm could spin off into her own series, so watch out for Portia Lang: Attorney at Law.
Other instances tread in the same racial paranoia more familiar to Grisham’s readers, though I’m not sure one scene is played more for terror or laughs. Ozzie Walls, the black elected Sheriff elected in predominantly white county, doesn’t feel like he’d be welcome eating in a mostly white establishment, once known to host Klan meetings. “Ozzie,” his deputy reminds him, “you’ve been elected sheriff of Ford County by two landslides. You are the Man around here, and I can’t believe you’re shy about walkin’ into a public café and havin’ a meal.” The locals, it turns out, are less interested in Ozzie’s skin color and more with the facts of the murdered police officer.
Ultimately, A Time for Mercy is more routine sausage factory John Grisham than the literary minded Grisham we glimpsed with its predecessor and, three books in, the lines between a typical Grisham legal thriller and what you’d find in a syndicated legal procedural are blurrier than ever. More than anything, given the timeline, the Jake Brigance series feels almost like an author imagining what his career (and life) might have been like had he stuck with the real thing and not the fictional kind. Millions of fans will probably feel he made the right choice – but one can always dream, right?