“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Review: SYCAMORE ROW by John Grisham
The bestselling success of The Firm (1991), The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993) led to A Time to Kill being republished, and Grisham’s reputation as the pre-eminent author of legal thrillers was established. His latest offering, his 30th in total, is billed as a sequel to A Time to Kill, and reintroduces us to Jake Brigance and the world of Clanton, Mississippi.
Set three years after Jake’s career-making defence of Carl Lee Hailey, the story opens with the discovery of the body of Seth Hubbard, a successful businessman who, dying of cancer, has opted to commit suicide. Immediately after the news of Hubbard’s death breaks, Jake receives a letter and a handwritten will from Seth Hubbard, in which the dead man renounces his previous will, cutting out his children and leaving 90% of his estate to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang.
When it emerges that the estate is worth $24 million before tax, the scene is set for what Jake describes as ‘a courtroom brawl’.
Despite being described as a sequel to A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row offers a different kind of story. The former featured shootings, bombings and burnings, and laced its courtroom proceedings with dramatic action which imperilled the lives of Jake and his family. Sycamore Row, by contrast, centres on a complex probate case which explores the impact of a multi-million windfall on an entire county, as Grisham employs the vast sums of money as a kind of abrasive, scrubbing away at the Southern civility and hospitality to reveal the atavistic instincts of the white and black citizens of Ford County. Central to the story is Jake’s own crisis of conscience and his growing distaste for his profession, even as he uses the tools of his trade to repair the damage inflicted on his family during his defence of Carl Lee Hailey.
Ultimately, however, both novels are concerned with race. The central mystery, and much of the characters’ prurient interest, revolves around the question of why a white businessman might leave his fortune to a black housekeeper. “This is not Carl Lee Hailey,” Jake tells his mentor, Lucien Wilbanks. “This is all about money.” Lucien disagrees. “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, and don’t you forget that.”
It’s a fascinating set-up, and Grisham takes his time investigating every facet of the case. Indeed, there are times when this approach feels self-indulgent; in a meandering narrative, Grisham walks us through the painstaking accumulation of detail in pre-trial while also exploring the effect of the rewritten will on the personal lives of those directly affected by Seth Hubbard’s apparently malicious disregard for blood-ties and family inheritance.
What gradually emerges, piece by piece, is a mosaic of Ford County, one in which past and present overlap. It is, presumably, no coincidence that William Faulkner is referenced on no fewer than three occasions; indeed, Jake Brigance works in his office at a rolltop desk beneath a portrait of Faulkner. While his prose lacks the sound and fury of Faulkner’s, Grisham steeps us in the atmosphere of the Deep South, conjuring up its languid pace and impeccable manners, its drawls and its humidity, the barbed banter of its cafés and coffee shops, its charming hucksters and impossibly erudite rogues. It’s a delicious melange, particularly when Grisham unsentimentally juxtaposes Clanton’s genteel and sincere hospitality with elements of unrepentant racism.
The result may not be the white-knuckle legal thriller that made Grisham’s reputation, but it is a reflective, warts-and-all portrait of a people uncomfortable with their past but proud of who they are. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times.