I don’t remember being tremendously impressed with Grisham’s more recent novels, but have always enjoyed his writing ability and his willingness to take on painful subjects, and so was excited to hear that he had done a sort of follow-up to A Time to Kill, one of his best. And while it did not disappoint, I have to admit that it lacked the high-octane appeal of earlier novels like The Pelican Brief and The Firm. But who says an author has to offer thrills and chills in order to be a good novelist? What Sycamore Row offers, instead, is a penetrating look into the heart and soul of a people who have been—and remain–tainted by one of the ugliest periods of U.S. history.
Seth Hubbard is a bitter old man who has no relations with anyone in the town of Clanton, Mississippi, and who is dying of advanced lung cancer. He has accrued a fortune in timber over the past decade, and when he decides to end the pain through suicide, he chooses to do so in a manner that stirs the hornet’s nest of racial tension in a town which just three years earlier, had managed to acquit a black man charged with the murder of his young daughter’s two rapists (“A Time To Kill.”) Hubbard hangs himself from a sycamore tree on his property, after mailing a letter and newly-handwritten will to Jake Briggance, the defense lawyer in A Time to Kill. The new will directs Jake, who has never met Hubbard, to give 90% of his 24 million dollar fortune to his black housekeeper and caregiver in the last few years of his life, while cutting out his children and grandchildren completely. The other 10% are to be split between a long-lost (possibly dead) brother and Hubbard’s church.
What ensues is an almost comical race by a horde of lawyers—both black and white—to attach themselves to the case and capture multi-million dollar fees. Lawyers for the Hubbard family plan to take a dual approach of challenging Seth’s sanity in writing the final will, as well as the purported manipulations of housekeeper Lettie Lang. Jake, however, is lawyer to the Hubbard estate, and refuses to bargain away or negotiate on behalf of anything less than Hubbard’s bequest. Lettie is meanwhile besieged by everyone from her drunken lout of a husband to greedy relatives on both sides of the family who come crawling out of the woodwork. Throw in an old-time judge with an agenda, Jake’s former drunken partner whose disbarment years earlier doesn’t stop him from plunging into the case, and racial dividing lines which have not been erased since the setting of A Time To Kill just three years earlier, and you have what looks like a free-for-all but which is actually a nuanced portrayal of a deep South which has yet to confront its sins.
Courtroom drama, of course, is Grisham’s specialty, and he doesn’t miss a beat. Not only does Grisham successfully convey courtroom atmosphere–the heat, the tension, the long-windedness, the exhaustion—but also the loopholes, flaws, and failings of a rule-bound system of law which is meant to protect our society from itself. This is a slow, wordy and carefully crafted novel, with lots of turns and twists in the plot designed to keep our attention focused — and with an ending well worth the wait.