I read John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” with a fond sense of nostalgia: it took me back to high school when I devoured at least 9 of his earliest, best-selling legal thrillers, and was convinced there were few things in life more glamorous than being a trial lawyer. His debut novel had been on my reading list for well over a decade, and finally getting around to it was a reminder of all the quintessential elements which made him so popular: suave, overworked young lawyers in the thick of high-profile courtroom battles, the media circus invariably surrounding them, and all the behind-the-scenes intrigue and deceptions in the working of the criminal justice system. This one sets out to find out whether an all-white Mississippi jury would sentence to death a black man for the premeditated murder of two white delinquents who brutally rape and attempt to kill his 10-year-old daughter. The drama unfolds in a tense, racially charged southern town where every act of violence, solidarity, and vigilantism has a resonance beyond its immediate legal significance.
Grisham sets up his story without any unnecessary sentimentality or sanctimonious preaching—he dives right into the action, allowing it to grow organically through characters and situations which are thoroughly believable. He knows exactly what motivates the former—money, pride, bigotry, celebrity, and revenge—and there’s no attempt to mask any of it under a veneer of nobility. The setting is ripe for delicious antagonisms (the self-aggrandising DA makes for an excellent adversary), and he cultivates them skilfully for a riveting page-turner. Unsurprisingly, for a debut, there are flashes of amateurish writing, though not frequent after the initial pages. There are also unmistakeable sexist undertones in the protagonists’ relationships with their wives, and especially of Brigance with waitresses and secretaries. While these may be attributed to individual characters, the author’s eventual treatment of the gifted clerk who makes a substantial contribution to the defence’s case was disconcerting. Nevertheless, the book is a hugely successful entertainer—a good place to start if you’ve never read Grisham before.