Monday, December 15, 2014

Crime & Beyond Book Club: John Grisham and Sycamore Row

Crime & Beyond met this month to discuss Sycamore Row by John Grisham. (You can see a Q&A with John Grisham from an earlier post right here on Mystery Playground.) This book is the long awaited sequel to A Time to Kill and features the return of lawyer Jake Brigance. Jake is the Ford County, Mississippi lawyer who defended Carl Lee Hailey against a charge of murder in A Time to Kill, which was made into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock. (Many of us had a hard time not picturing McConaughey as we read.)

It’s the 1980s, only a few years after the Hailey trial, and racial tension is still high in the south. Jake opens his mail one morning and finds a letter from a man named Seth Hubbard. Seth was dying of lung cancer and rather than let it take him, he hung himself from a Sycamore tree on his property. Before he did that, he wrote the letter to Jake, which included a handwritten will that he asked Jake to defend. The new will leaves his entire fortune—in the range of 20+ million—to his black housekeeper Lettie. He disinherits his kids and grandkids, and the only other bequest is 5% to a long lost brother.

Jake begins the process of defending the handwritten will, relishing the thrill that goes along with a trial like this. Seth’s family claims that the chemotherapy and drugs muddled Seth’s mind and that the old will leaving his fortune to them should be upheld. The letter Seth wrote Jake tells him to defend the will at all costs, a task that he takes on willingly. He knows he has his work cut out for him and that it won’t be easy to get a Ford County jury to agree that Seth was in his right mind when he left millions of dollars to a black woman, but Jake has swayed juries before. While the trial is underway, he has an investigator searching for Seth’s brother, to try and determine if he’s still alive, and if so, if he can shed any light on Seth’s motivations.

My book club really enjoyed the book. If I had to choose whether the book was character driven or plot driven, I would be hard pressed to pick one. I think it was really both. Grisham is a master storyteller and most of us were hooked until the end. Jake is a wonderful character and for those of us who remember reading A Time to Kill, it was great to revisit some of the other supporting characters from that book as they made another appearance. My favorite was Sheriff Ozzie. 

The action takes place primarily in the courtroom, so if you are a fan of legal mysteries, you will love this book. The stakes aren’t as high as murder, but this doesn’t lower the tension or the bias that Jake is up against as he defends a will that could make Lettie the richest black woman in Ford County. As the trial progressed, some of the readers had a hard time choosing sides, so this tells you that there are a few twists and turns. Also, several of us listened to the audio version of the book. I was one of them and I thought that the reader did a great job. 

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