In The Spotlight: John Grisham’s A Time to Kill

>In The Spotlight: Agatha Christie's 4:50 From PaddingtonHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. John Grisham has been a major influence in crime fiction for more than twenty-five years. He has twice won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and has created many memorable characters. This feature can only be improved by including a spotlight on a Grisham novel, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on his first novel, A Time to Kill.

The novel begins in rural Clanton, Mississippi, where ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked, raped and left for dead. There’s no doubt as to the identity of her attackers: Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. When Ford County Sheriff Ozzie Walls learns what has happened, he and his team arrest Cobb and Willard immediately.

Tonya’s family is, of course, devastated. Her father, Carl Lee, is hit especially hard. The case is big news, and gets everyone’s attention, including that of Jake Brigance, an up-and-coming attorney whose office is just across the street from the courthouse. When he goes to the courthouse to attend the preliminary hearing, Carl Lee makes some cryptic remarks to him that make Jake think he’s planning personal revenge.

In fact, that’s what happens. With some help from his brother, Lester, Carl Lee gets a gun and ambushes Billy Ray and Pete, killing both of them and badly wounding the sheriff’s deputy who was accompanying them. As it happens, Jake successfully defended Lester on another, unrelated, murder charge, and now Carl Lee wants Jake to defend him.

On the one hand, it seems like a trial lawyer’s dream. The case has gotten a great deal of media attention, even from national media outlets. So there’s a lot of possibility for the kind of reputation (and therefore, fortune) that many lawyers can only imagine. On that score, Jake’s only too happy to take on the case.

But this is not going to be a simple case. For one thing, there is no disputing the fact that Carl Lee murdered two men. And there are people who don’t like the idea of vigilantism, including the District Attorney and the presiding judge. Everyone has a great deal of sympathy for the Hailey family (and plenty of people say privately that they’d have done the same thing Carl Lee did). Still, taking private vengeance can’t be condoned.

For another thing, there is a major issue of race. Carl Lee and his daughter are black; Billy Ray and Pete were white. And this is Ford County, Mississippi, which is, as Jake puts it, a white county. There are plenty of people who want to make very sure that Carl Lee is executed for murdering whites. The Ku Klux Klan even takes an interest in the case for that reason. There are just as many people, though, who believe that Carl Lee is the victim of racism, and that he can’t get a fair trial. Their claim is that no-one would give this case a thought if the victims had been black and the killer white. So the NAACP and other civil rights activists also take an interest in the case. And of course, the media is fascinated, too. In the middle of all of this is Jake Brigance, whose goal is to win the case.

This is a legal novel, so there is a lot of focus on the preparation for the trial, motions and other aspects of the trial, and the politics of being an attorney. There are questions of legal ethics, such as what Jake should do with the hint he has that Carl Lee may be planning something illegal. And there are several interactions between Jake and other members of the local legal system.

And then there is the trial itself. As the trial proceeds, readers get the chance to see skilled lawyers in action. Jake Brigance is not perfect, but he is very good at what he does. So is the prosecuting attorney. Readers who like a suspenseful trial will be pleased at this one.

There are very high political stakes in this case, and that’s another element in the novel. Several powerful people and groups on both sides take an interest, and try to manipulate Jake, Carl Lee, and other people involved. I can say without spoiling the story that for some people, this trial is really a means to a larger end, and Carl Lee more or less a figurehead, rather than a real person.

This leads to another important element of the novel: Jake’s character. He is an ambitious attorney, and quite forthright about the impact that winning this case could have on his career. As it is, he struggles to pay the bills, and he wants greater security. He’s not completely unethical or soulless, but he is pragmatic. He does what he has to do to win the case. He wants a lucrative career, and the national attention this case is bringing will be helpful. That said, he also has a great deal of sympathy for his client, and a reputation (even before the murders) as a liberal. I can say without spoiling the story that his life becomes quite frayed as the novel goes on. He’s by no means a ‘knight on a white horse,’ and he faces several personal challenges. But readers who are tired of broken-down, drunken protagonists will appreciate the fact that Jake is functional.

The novel takes place in rural Mississippi, in the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. Everyone is somebody’s cousin/brother/sister/friend/etc., so there are very few degrees of freedom in town. The politics are local, too. That said, this isn’t a town full of rednecks and hicks. Some people fit in those categories. Others are educated and thoughtful. And it’s interesting to see how the town reacts when media outlets from New York, Chicago and other places move in to cover the trial. No matter what their personal feelings about each other are, the locals have no truck with those outsiders, especially those they think are portraying them as ‘stupid yokels.’

The case itself, the rape of Tonya Hailey and the murders, is very sad. Readers who don’t like stories in which harm comes to children will want to know that what happens to Tonya is not glossed over (although Grisham doesn’t go on for pages about it). And there are real and devastating effects on her and her family because of it. Life will go on for the Hailey family, but it will never be the same. Readers will also want to know that there’s plenty of explicit language, as well as plenty of disparaging racial slurs. It’s not done gratuitously, though.

A Time to Kill is the story of a family torn apart by what happens to one of its members. It’s also the story of a complicated trial that involves some complex and very difficult issues. It takes place in a distinctive small-town context, and features an attorney who may not be perfect, but is determined to win this trial. But what’s your view? Have you read A Time to Kill? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 11 January/Tuesday, 12 January – Dead Before Morning – Geraldine Evans

Monday, 18 January/Tuesday, 19 January – The Beast Must Die – Nicholas Blake

Monday, 25 January/Tuesday, 26 January – The Merchant’s House – Kate Ellis


Filed under A Time to Kill, John Grisham

55 responses to “In The Spotlight: John Grisham’s A Time to Kill

  1. Oh, shame on me! I haven’t read anything by Grisham; because of your posting, I promise to correct that shortcoming. Thanks!

  2. 2016 is the year when I finally get around to read Grisham, I have Sycamore Row on the TBR – good to get your take on this one, I can’t believe I’ve left it so wrong to read someone so influential in crime fiction

  3. Grisham has been my favourite author for years and this novel is exceptional 🙂

  4. JJ

    I reread this recently, and it’s amazing how well it had held up. I can’t help but feel that for my tastes he drifted off-course and so I lost track of him, but a lot of Grisham’s early stuff is awesome.

  5. I loved this one – in fact, I’d say I think it’s his best book. What I liked most was that he tried to be pretty even-handed about it. He had characters put the arguments for and against vigilantism, capital punishment, etc., but then he left the reader to make up her own mind about the ethics of it all. It was pretty nuanced, I felt – only the rapists and the KKK came out as wholly bad, while the other characters all had both strengths and flaws. But I can see why the strong language and those shocking opening scenes meant that the book got a slightly underwhelming reception when it was first published.

    • You’re absolutely right, FictionFan. The story is told more or less even-handedly, which makes the case all the more interesting. And I like the fact that the characters are nuanced, too. It’s a real, authentic situation, horrible as it is. And I think that adds to the ‘punch’ of the story. As you say, the language is difficult to get around given today’s sensibilities. And the opening scene is harrowing. Still, it’s one of those books that gets a person thinking, and it’s a well-written story, too.

  6. Kathy D.

    I liked “A Time to Kill,” the book and the movie adaptation, although the book showed more of Jake Brigance’s character and thinking. This book set me up as a life-long Grisham fan and I’ve read many of his books, some excellent, some OK.
    But the sequel to this book is “Sycamore Row,” a very well-written story of the South and its racist history. However, it’s again a legal tale featuring Jake Brigance once more and a cast of Southern characters, with much drama taking place in the courtroom, as well as outside it.
    “A Time to Kill” was Grisham’s first published book, and then more than 20 followed. “Sycamore Row” is about a more mature Brigance. The plot is figured out very carefully, the characters very well-described. The story is very polished. It’s one of Grisham’s best novels. Friends and I raced through it and all liked it I highly recommend it.

    • I think you make a well-taken point, Kathy, that the book version of A Time to Kill tells readers more about Jake Brigance’s character than the film adaptation does. You’re right, too, of course, that Sycamore Row takes up the story of Jake Brigance, and certainly shows a more mature Brigance. That makes sense, too, if you think about how real people evolve over time. Thanks for reminding us of it.

  7. Kathy D.

    Sycamore Row also shows how Grisham’s writing evolved and improved over time, style, plotting, characterization.
    I’m now reading his latest book, “Rogue Lawyer,” which is both politically incisive and funny as can be. I’m agreeing with his points and then I’m laughing out loud. Quite a character is Sebastian Rudd. Also, other characters are interesting, too. An easy read; lots of truths are revealed but in an easygoing way with humor even when bad scenarios are described.

  8. Margot – I have just bumped “The Rogue Lawyer” to a must read soon TBR pile 🙂 The more blogs I read the more these piles are being shuffled around 🙂

  9. Patti Abbott

    What a terrific book, I loved it then and I need to reread it.

  10. I’ve occasionally been underwhelmed by John Grisham but this sounds like one of his better ones. Perhaps I should give him another go.

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  12. Good morning! I wanted to let you know I appreciate your blog! I’ve nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award. You can find out more about the award on my blog. Thank you for making a difference.

  13. Congratulations on the award, Margot! Definitely deserving.

    Well, this was well worth the wait. I loved A Time to Kill, though it’s been years since I’ve read it. I also loved the movie adaptation. Matthew McConaughey…mm-mm. They couldn’t have found a better actor to play Jake. I was reading your comments, as I often do, and now, I’m looking forward to reading Rogue Lawyer. It sounds really, really good. IMO, you can’t go wrong with Grisham.

  14. Keishon

    Congratulations, Margot on the award for blogger recognition. You deserve it, ma’am. Back to A Time to Kill, I’ve only seen the movie so I am looking forward to reading A Time To Kill. I bought it last year as a friend also said that the book is still worth reading even if you’ve watched the movie. I’ve read Grisham before – The Firm and that’s been about it, so I’m looking forward to it.

    • Thank you, Keishon 🙂 – And I hope you’ll enjoy A Time to Kill if you get the chance to read it. I think it really is not only a solid character study, but a strong piece of legal fiction.

  15. Margot, this was on my list to read last year but I never got to it. I do want to read it before I read Sycamore Road, but I know the topic will be a difficult one. Great overview.

    • Thank you, Tracy. And yes, it is a difficult topic. I will say that Grisahm doesn’t go on for page after page about the rape and beating. But it is not an easy novel to read. That said though, it’s a very well-written book, and it does lay the groundwork for Sycamore Rowy, so I think you’re wise to read it first.

  16. I’ve not read this particular Grisham novel but it sounds from your description as though you can see themes coming through that would be important in many of his later books. Thanks!

  17. Happy New Year! All my best wishes for 2016!

  18. Just by your review of this book, A Time to Kill, I can see why Grisham won two Harper Lee Prizes. 🙂

  19. Margot: I remain astonished that Grisham was having so much trouble selling copies of A Time to Kill he was carrying them in the back of his car peddling them around Mississippi. It is such a good book.

    I just finished Rogue Lawyer and it is a memorable Grisham book. It is one of his best set outside Mississippi.

    • I didn’t know that about A Time to Kill, Bill! It is hard to believe, considering what a well-written and rich book it is. And now it’s time, I suspect, for me to read Rogue Lawyer (Haven’t gotten to it, yet).

  20. Margot, I read this novel a long time ago and your excellent review makes me want to read either this or another Grisham book right away. I also recall watching the film adaptation, which has a wonderful cast. Some authors you feel like reading back to back. Grisham is one of them, as are Martin Cruz Smith and Dan Brown. I like Grisham’s narrative style because he keeps it simple without diluting the intensity of his plots.

    • You’re absolutely right, Prashant, about Grisham’s style. He writes in a straightforward way that draws the reader in. That style makes the plot, I think, all the more intense. I can see why you feel you can read Grisham novels one after the other.

  21. I didn’t know this was his first book – it sounds like a great and brave start to his career. Like Marina Sofia, I read something else by him and was underwhelmed, so should try something else by him.

    • That’s actually a good word for it, Moira – brave. It is a very well-written novel, and has memorable characters. For my money, it’s one of his really fine novels.

  22. I read The Firm first, then A Time to Kill, his first novel, for which he was unable to find a publisher until after The Firm hit it big. I liked A Time to Kill much better. It was more realistic and it dealt intelligently and with greater complexity than Mockingbird with the South’s most pressing social issue.

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