Grisham returns for another run with his popular character Jake Brigance (A Time to Kill) of Ford County, Mississippi, best known for a racially-charged trial that left his home burnt to the ground, his family near-penniless, and his reputation forever ensconced in high drama on behalf of an innocent man. Just a few years later, Jack is enjoying the lush offices loaned to him by Lucien Wilbanks, the barrister who came to Jake’s rescue despite the impediment of the alcoholic haze in which he normally functions. Certainly nothing has changed for Lucien—disbarred, retired, but planning to get his act together soon and take another run at the Bar Exam.
Content in his plush office digs but concerned about his financial state, Jake has no idea that a wealthy man’s well-planned suicide will put him center stage in another roiling drama in a Ford County courtroom. When Seth Hubbard, twice-divorced, estranged from his children and riddled with cancer, publicly hangs himself from a stately sycamore tree on his property line, no one expects the brouhaha that follows—not the sheriff, Ozzie Walls, not coroner Finn Plunkett, not even the story-seeking reporter for the Ford County Times, Dumas Lee. The first shock: Jake is named as the lawyer to defend the hand-written will Hubbard has left to supersede any other testaments as to the disposal of his considerable fortune. In the late ‘80s, over twenty million dollars is a huge amount in a town of few millionaires. Even more shocking: the bulk of Hubbard’s fortune has been left to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang, a woman with only a short association with her employer and no idea why he has chosen her as beneficiary.
Once he has gotten over the unexpected windfall that has fallen in his lap, Jake’s job is to ascertain Hubbard’s state of mind and the status of the estate, file the appropriate papers with the court, and face a battery of lawyers hired by Hubbard’s children to invalidate the handwritten will. It is Jake’s duty to protect Hubbard’s intentions and make a case for the final will, not to act as attorney for Lettie Lang. However, Lang’s interests parallel Jake’s, so his advice can assist her in knowing what to do next. Without the high drama of a murder case, this novel faces a different challenge, albeit one just as racially charged with the animus between parties, Lettie potentially the only black millionaire in Clanton if her cause succeeds: “Everything is all about race in Mississippi, don’t ever forget that.”
Most of the legal wrangling is behind the scenes between attorneys and clients, a feeding frenzy developing with an opportunity for fat fees and years of court proceedings. While the racial animus plays out differently—and less obviously—than in the previous novel, attorneys from all over the state attempt to represent the disgruntled heirs, a black rabble-rousing lawyer seeking to use Lettie’s case as a soapbox for his own agenda. The courtroom is soon cluttered with unfamiliar faces making claims on behalf of clients, a situation the judge addresses promptly. Like a chess game, Grisham lays out the players and their options, the machinations of lawyers skilled at stacking juries and grooming witnesses, the resources of big firms undermining Jake’s case and causing him more than a little aggravation.
Grisham’s skill lies in playing off one side against another, framing the psychological elements, the family members who couldn’t be bothered when Hubbard was alive, a housekeeper married to an opportunist and confused by the railings of her big city attorney, a line drawn between black and white that isn’t necessary and only hurts Jake’s case as well as Lettie’s. It’s up to Jake to dig deeper, to unravel Hubbard’s reasons and, incidentally, search for Hubbard’s long-lost brother, who may or may not be alive. Like in A Time to Kill, Grisham saves a few choice scenes to set the stage for the emotional trajectory of his tale, this time at the end of the novel, an ending that leaves no doubt as to Hubbard’s intentions or the right decision for the court to make.
By mid-novel, I was overwhelmed by the interactions between the lawyers, interesting at first, but predictably moribund with lawyerese. The movement in the story is as slow as the courts actually move in real time. The ending was unexpected and impactful, but the author really makes you work for the result. At best, I was enlightened; at worst, I wondered why anyone would ever want to be a lawyer. Grisham set the bar high with A Time to Kill and his earlier novels. He may have more stories to tell, but I don’t want to work so hard to enjoy them.