Review: Sycamore Row – John Grisham

sycamore rowI apologise to my readers once again for the infrequency of my posts at the moment.  When I took on the job of creating a website for a charity I hadn’t really taken on board the size of the task, and while I’m really enjoying doing it, my book reviewing has taken a hit while I spend an hour or so every day working with Serif WebPlus to create the new website.

While I’m here, I’d like to wish all my contacts a very happy Christmas.  I hope you get the books you want and that you find plenty of time to read them.

I’ve not read a John Grisham novel for a very long time but was tempted by his new book Sycamore Row which is a sequel to his very first book published in 1989, A Time to Kill.  In the first novel we see young attorney Jake Brignance defending Carl Lee Hailey, who has murdered two white racists who have raped and terribly injured his ten-year old daughter.  Jake takes on Carl Lee’s defence but as a result, the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan pursue a vendetta against him, leading to Jake being shot at and his house and property torched.  A Time to Kill made John Grisham’s name as a crime writer unafraid to tackle the most inflammatory topics and he has had a hugely successful career as a result, publishing about 30 best-selling novels.

It has taken John Grisham 25 years to return to Ford County but the events described in it happened only three years on from those in A Time to Kill.  Let’s set the scene by quoting an article in the Washington Post which describes Ford County perfectly:

The little town is surrounded by rural enclaves, woods and farmland, acreage that shelters poor farmers but is also coveted by shady developers. The streets of Clanton are lined on one side with the mansions of old white landowners and on the other with the modest homes of African-Americans who have lived there as long as the gouging landowners. It’s a microcosm of America — at least of those citizens who haven’t run off to the anonymity of big-city life and all the daydreams of urban success.

We find ourselves in 1989 and Jake is now living with his family in poor rented accommodation while he tries to get adequate insurance compensation for the arson attack on his home.  While he has won general acclaim for his work in the Hailey trial, it has not brought him success among the highly conservative population who tend to employ more established legal firms for advice and litigation.

The book opens with an employee of a local businessman, Seth Hubbard, being told to meet his boss one Sunday afternoon.  The employee finds Seth hanging by the neck from a sycamore tree on his estate.  He has been suffering from terminal lung cancer which has become too painful to bear and he has ended his life quickly but shockingly.  The next morning, a letter arrives in Jake Brignance’s office from the dead man, instructing him to take care of his affairs and containing a new hand-written will which renounces an earlier will drawn up by a respected legal firm.

Brigance opens the letter and reads that Mr. Hubbard has written a new holographic will that renounces one he wrote a year ago in which he had left money to his daughter and son as well as their grandchildren.  Now, his children are cut out of the will and 90% of his money is left to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang, who has served him so faithfully over the last few years.

I specifically cut out my two adult children, their children, and my two ex-wives. These are not nice people and they will fight, so get ready. My estate is substantial—they have no idea of its size—and when this is made known they will attack. Fight them, Mr. Brigance, to the bitter end. We must prevail.

Furthermore, Seth Hubbard instructs Jake to only tell his family about this new will after the funeral, for,

I want my family to be forced to go through all the rituals of mourning before they realize they get nothing. Watch them fake it—they’re very good at it. They have no love for me.

As Jake predicts while reading the letter, an almighty legal battle is going to be fought over the new will.  Was Seth competent to make it or did his lung cancer and the pain-killing drugs he was taking effect his mind so badly that he didn’t know what he was doing?   Did Lettie have exercise and undue influence over Seth in his dying days, perhaps even earlier on in their relationship by offering sexual favours?  There is no doubt that every affected party is going to recruit lawyers to represent them, while Jake will have to stand alone as defender of the will and Seth’s right to make whatever bequests he wished.

This is a long and convoluted story. As Jake expected, Seth’s children recruit powerful teams of lawyers to represent them, while Lettie herself finds a black lawyer from Chicago who seems to have the get up and go to stand against these southern vested interests and racial prejudice.  At least Jake has the comfort of knowing that the judge in the case is going to be the elderly Reuben Atlee who seems to be well aware of the trickiness that will be employed by the other lawyers in their efforts to rake off huge fees from any sums awarded to their clients.

I had my doubts about whether I would be able to read through a novel which so painstakingly goes through a complex legal case like this.  I expected boredom to set in about half way through, but such is John Grisham’s skill as a writer that there was no point that I felt like giving up on the book.  Quite the contrary, I found myself turning page after page as hidden motives were revealed, lies exposed, old scores settled and ancient wrongs are righted.  Justice slowly emerges from the morass, but it is not what you expect at the start of the novel and I was let wondering how Grisham was able to manage such a complex story with so many threads.

Perhaps Sycamore Row’s obvious quality is explained by Grisham’s statement in an interview for The Daily Beast, “For ten years I practiced law in a small town in Mississippi, handling criminal cases and injury cases for people with no money, always dreaming of the big trial. This is why those two books have a level of authenticity that the others probably lack”.  While most of Grisham’s books have had vast commercial success and were perhaps designed to do so, his motivation in writing A Time to Kill was around having a story to tell which he had to put down on paper.  In Sycamore Row, this same motivation burns through the pages and has led to a novel which would stand as a masterpiece for any writer.

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17 thoughts on “Review: Sycamore Row – John Grisham

  1. A Time to Kill is my favorite Grisham novel, and each one has been increasingly disappointing to me since. I’m glad to know that Sycamore Row is a sequel to it, and that you enjoyed it, because the last few books of his I haven’t even been able to finish.

    As to being ‘absent’ no one could be more absent than I; I’m hanging my head in shame about the terrible lack of comments I’ve been leaving anywhere in the blog-o-sphere. Well, it’s time for some New Year’s Resolutions… xo


  2. Hi Tom – Life gets so busy and this blogging thing can be so time consuming!

    It really has been a along time since I have read a Grisham novel too. I never read a Time to Kill so I would go back to read that one before I read this one. This one sounds very good.

    Have aMerry Christmas!


  3. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read anything by Grisham. I don’t read many thrillers and dismissed him without knowing his books until some years back I read about his getting involved with a Southern literary magazine and using his money for good (and I hope I haven’t mixed him up with somebody else). I have meant to read something by him. If you take him seriously, I should give him a try.

    Merry Christmas! I’m glad you’re returning to regular blogging next year.


    • Hi Kat – thanks for visiting. Much appreciated. Well, we can’t read serious books all the time can we. And this Grisham provided pretty compelling reading for a few days. You can’t hold the instert for that long without being a great writer.


  4. I loved A Time To Kill – it was my first Grisham. I’ve read a few of his other books, but didn’t really enjoy them as much. I’m glad to see he’s written this sequel as it sounds quite interesting and takes us back to familiar places and people – I’ll definitely be checking it out. As for the infrequent blogging – I’ve been the same way lately. Enjoy your holidays!!


  5. I know what you mean about volunteer work taking up time – but good for you Tom. I bet the organisation appreciates it.

    I have yet to read a Grisham. For a while there he seemed to be in every bookshop I went to, but I don’t seen him around much now. Has he slowed down or am I just going to different shops! Anyhow, you’ve convinced me he’s worth reading – if I can ever find the time.


  6. I just finished reading this book, having chosen it for the same reason you spoke of (since I still think his first book was his very best–I remember as I was reading it knowing how I WANTED it to end and not seeing any way he’d ever be able to make that happen in any believable way) and found that I like it for all the same reasons you mention, as well! This was a masterful piece of work, when it could so easily have been really bad. Two things that stuck out as I read it–having lent my copy of “A Time to Kill” I can’t doublecheck, but I believe his daughter’s name was Hannah, not Hanna (a small thing, but as a writer myself those details jump out at me) and, did this in ANY way make you expect a sort of Rosewood story? I mean….I had suspected from Seth’s suicide why he’d chosen that method….


    • Hello Elizabeth. Please forgive me for the delay in replying to your interesting comment. I have been terrible busy lately.

      I agree that “masterful” describes this book – not perhaps in terms of “literature” but certainly in the sheer quality of the story-telling. I don’t know what you mean by a “Rosewood” story – something to do with the method of suicide perhaps?

      Well spotted about the discrepancy in the name Hannah/Hanna.


  7. to tell the truth, i bought this book for my mom and i havent read it. but she has, and she enjoyed it a lot found it very gripping and exciting. She is always on the look out for new stuff from John grisham, but she does nit like the Theodore Boone books. Other than those, she owns every single grisham there is.


  8. Read all of Grisham’s works and this is by far the best with ” A Time To Kill ” second place.
    He is a master at building an almost “a no-win ” case that readers will page-turn all night
    just too see how he somehow emerge the WINNER. A LOW KEY LAWYER WHO NEEDS


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