Sycamore Row by John Grisham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I first read the description about how the case which features in this book could possibly be “as riveting and dramatic” as the events in A Time to Kill, I was dumbfounded. I don’t think I could ever equate matters of probate and beneficiaries (but no goblins) with what drove a man to avenge his young daughter’s rape, but this is how John Grisham lays out the story. As in his first novel, the action of Sycamore Row mainly centers on Clanton, Mississippi, a setting I’ve always regarded as having Grisham’s best characters.
Approximately three years after winning acquittal for Carl Lee Hailey, Jake Brigance hasn’t really had a notable case since then. This all changes when he receives a handwritten will and instructions from Seth Hubbard, a white man who explicitly mailed them in a way so Jake would receive them the day after Hubbard’s suicide in an area called Sycamore Row. This will is perplexing as it renounced a previous will that had left Hubbard’s vast fortune to his descendants and instead leaves it to his black housekeeper of three years, Lettie Lang. In racially-divided Clanton, this becomes the talk of the town. Jake is instructed to defend the handwritten will at all costs, and as would be expected, the children of Seth Hubbard challenge the document which completely cuts them out.
Jake Brigance is just as good a character now as he was when he was introduced 24 years ago. Although readers are constantly reminded of his success with the Hailey trial, they still get to see Jake’s sardonic side, which hasn’t missed a beat. His willingness to do what is right even though external forces may make that difficult was a major theme of A Time to Kill, and that is echoed in this story. The return of allies and adversaries alike are a great source of comic relief, as Judge Reuben Atlee has very little tolerance for bullshit in his courtroom. While Jake sympathizes with Lettie as the main beneficiary, he knows his duty is to the estate and thus defends the handwritten will “to the bitter end.”
For any fan of Grisham, this is a must-read. While you needn’t have read A Time to Kill to enjoy Sycamore Row, you might want to give the earlier tome a look just so you can familiarize yourself with Jake Brigance and company. Although the story may be anti-climactic, the world of Clanton is always an interesting one whatever the case may be. The extra insights into some minor characters (e.g., Lettie’s husband) are a welcome bonus, and exploring the motivations of Seth Hubbard felt authentic. I also hope we see more stories of Jake Brigance, although I enjoy the fact that a little of his character goes a long way.
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ETA: I don’t know why Goodreads didn’t upload this directly (I had to copy/paste), but I suspect it had something to do with my enabling two-step authentication on my WordPress account since the last Goodreads review auto-published. And while I would advocate using two-step authentication wherever possible, the quirks in WordPress were enough that I had to disable it. (For example, the mobile app would always ask to authenticate if launched in Reader, but not if launched in another tab such as Stats. How much sense does that make?)