Racism in Clanton, Mississippi, is, like Jacques Brel, alive and well (though perhaps not living in Paris). Despite the decade (the ‘80s) and the cultural and social advancements in civil rights, Clanton remains largely segregated, and race is omnipresent. When a heinous crime mars the town, tempers clash and violence ensues as justice remains (partially) blind.
Plot Overview: Racism, Homicide and Justice
Pete Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, a couple of drunk and high rednecks, are cruising through the streets of Clanton, primarily in the African-American section. They happen upon 10-year-old Tonya Hailey, whom they rape, torture and attempt to murder by wrapping a rope around her throat and dragging her behind Cobb’s flashy yellow truck. Tonya survives, but not before sustaining serious injuries.
Although local sheriff Ozzie Walls quickly apprehends the two, Tonya’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, has his own brand of punishment prepared. Carl Lee confides in Jake Brigance, struggling Canton lawyer, that he plans to kill the two rapists. Jake brushes off the claim, but his wife, Carla, urges him to tell the sheriff.
Following a court date with Willard and Cobb, Carl Lee bursts out of a courtroom closet brandishing an M-16. He kills the criminals, and inadvertently shoots Deputy Looney in the leg. The traumatize father is subsequently arrested and charged with capital murder.
As Carl Lee’s lawyer, Jake puzzles out the case with the help of his motley crew of lawyer friends, including the unscrupulous Harry Rex, brilliant and sexy law student Ellen Roark, and alcoholic Lucien Wilbanks. While the four huddle behind closed doors to strategize, the KKK is plotting revenge for the death of the two white men, and the NAACP is gearing up to provide Carl Lee with the best support possible. Only Jake, though, has his pulse on the heart of the issue, and everyone is watching and waiting to see if he can free his client.
Criticisms and Compliments
According to his foreword, Grisham felt A Time to Kill was one of his best works; it is the most complex and most layered of his novels, and he spent three years polishing it. Unfortunately, A Time to Kill didn’t sell well at the time. When The Firm came out not long after, it flew off the shelves; Grisham had found his niche: legal thrillers. But his heart, it seems, stayed with the more literary (but arguably still a legal thriller) A Time to Kill. It was only recently that Grisham, now well established in the book (and movie) world, has taken the time to revisit his memorable characters – Lucien, Jake, Carl Lee, Ozzie, Buckley, Row Ark, Noose, Harry Rex – in Sycamore Row. For Grisham fans who have not read A Time to Kill (or who may only have seen the movie), this book is an absolute must read before embarking on Sycamore Row; to do otherwise is an injustice to the characters.
As Grisham’s first foray into fiction, A Time to Kill doesn’t have the style and more obvious humor of his later novels (The Litigators, The Brethren, Calico Joe), but it has the three greats: plot, characters and setting. The standout is, naturally, Jake Brigance; out of the myriad attitudes toward race and the trial, Jake is the only one who does not consider the color of a person’s skin to be a factor. He rarely mentions it in trial, and he is noncommittal to friends and family. Justice is the only factor that consumes Jake’s thoughts. It’s an admirable quality.
A Time to Kill is one of Grisham’s best. Read it now.
- Grisham, John. A Time to Kill. Dell, 2009 ISBN 9780440245919