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