John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, categorized as a legal thriller, isthe sequel to A Time to Kill. Although it is written a quarter of a century later, it is set a mere three years after lawyer Jake Brigance’s famous verdict in the Carl Lee Hailey trial in which a black man murdered two white boys for the rape and attempted murder of Hailey’s ten year old daughter. Fast forward to present day, October 1988, when Brigance receives a letter accompanied by the holographic will of Seth Hubbard, an admirer of Brigance’s persistence to defend Hailey in the racist South. When Hubbard learned that he did not have long to live and suffered painfully from lung cancer, he commited suicide leaving 90% of his $24 million fortune to his black housekeeper of three years, Lettie Lang. As expected, it is a will contest waiting to explode, for embedded in the culture of the Deep South is the unspoken threat of the Klan and their mentality of white supremacy that would never allow Lettie to inherit anything. It is as Lucien Wilbanks, Brigance’s mentor says, “[e]verything is about race in Mississippi…[i]t’s race and money…a rare combination around here” (Grisham 158). Though Wilbanks has been disbarred and is a hopeless alcoholic, he provides Brigance with invaluable assistance and shares with Brigance an appetite for the truth and justice with the occasional detour.
The pace of the novel, for the most part, reflects the pace of legal proceedings, including the occasional scramble for control. In the novel, we are not made to side with Brigance nor are we made to sympathize with Wade Lanier, the primary lawyer contesting the will. Instead we are made to follow Grisham’s measured and deliberate pace that provides the occasional insightful detail that challenges us to solve the case before either lawyer. In this way, we do not just follow Brigance, but also Lanier, Wilbanks and a plethora of other characters to build our case in a way not too different from Ed McBain’s Cop Hater and 87th Precinct series in that it lacks focus on a single detective as the “hero” of the narrative. However, despite this advantage, we are in the dark as much as the jury and do not discover the truth, validity, or reasons behind Hubbard’s last will until we join the jury in the novel to deliver our verdict with them. This novel takes us on the road with the Brigance, Lanier and their investigative teams before and during the trial. Once there, we hear the discrediting testimony of two witnesses before the novel’s jury, but as we are among the jury, a crucial piece of evidence is withheld from the reader, allowing Grisham and Brigance to effectively prevent us from pronouncing our verdict until our fellow jurors hear the same evidence.
As an aspiring lawyer, I acknowledge that at times this novel gives a glamorized view of the court and litigation. However, Grisham, commendably shows another side of the legal profession. The reality is that Brigance has lost everything by persistently adhering to his beliefs, evoking a sense of admiration amongst the readers. It is a surprise to learn that his wife and daughter are still with him despite almost getting blown up by the KKK and losing their home in A Time to Kill, but at the same time we are relieved that he still has a support system to help him through this arduous will contest. It is this sympathetic portrayal, coupled with his conviction to see justice done that places our sympathy with him and would like to see him triumph over Lanier. For a legal thriller, I initially expected much of it to be focused on the courtroom brawl, but instead, the novel focuses on the investigative aspect and the energy required in building up the case. By showing the reader the process, we can understand the work put into a case in a way that TV courtroom dramas usually cannot. It provides the reader a more realistic glimpse into the life of a probate lawyer.
Unlike A Time to Kill, Brigance’s focus is not on arguing his case beyond a reasonable doubt; this time he is dealing with probate law, which originally struck me as boring and dry. However, in the progression of the novel, in particular the race to file for probate and the trial that followed, the case was able to hold my attention indefinitely. Understandably, besides being dry, probate law is very complex and at times can be alienating. Yet, Grisham has the sense to simplify it enough so that the common reader with little or no legal background is able to fully grasp his main argument, which is another way that we are like the jury.
In the final battle of wits, will Brigance impress us again with his defensive performance or has he reached the end of his rope?