Review: 'Sycamore Row' is Grisham in his element

features@islandpacket.comDecember 29, 2013 

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Before hanging himself, Seth Hubbard sent a letter to his lawyer explaining his actions and wrote a new will that cut out his family and left 90 percent of his estate to his black housekeeper. This would have been a sensation anywhere, but imagine the impact on a small town in Mississippi. The reaction became even greater when it was learned Hubbard's estate was worth more than $24 millon. The lawyer, who had never met Hubbard, is Jake Brigance.

Grisham fans will recognize Brigance as the young lawyer who successfully defended a black man charged with the murder of two white men in his first novel, "A Time to Kill." But "Sycamore Row" is by no means a sequel. And while it does not involve a crime, at least not a recent one, it generates more suspense than any Grisham novel in a long while.

Brigance had earned less than a thousand dollars defending the black man, and in retaliation, the Klan had threatened his family and burned his home, leaving him virtually broke. The insurance company has offered far less than the house was worth, and negotiations are at a stalemate. This case promises to be a big payday, but there are obstacles even Brigance couldn't foresee. All of the disinherited Hubbards hired lawyers, and at the pre-trial hearing, Brigance faced 11 of them. On top of that, the husband of the housekeeper, Lettie Lang, hired some slick black lawyers from Memphis, one of them a flamboyant, attention-seeking man who was certain to arouse the hostility of a small town Southern jury.

Brigance represented the estate, not Lang, and he could not control her husband's decision. On his side was a drunken disbarred lawyer, a divorce lawyer who drinks Budweiser for breakfast, and Lettie's daughter, Portia, a bright young woman who wants to be a lawyer but hasn't even been to college. Then, before the jury is even selected, Lettie's husband almost destroyed her chances. Coming home from an evening of drinking, Simeon Lang smashed his truck into a car carrying two brothers, both local football heroes, and while he survived, they did not. Any sympathy the town may have had for Lettie vanished.

It's difficult to sum up the plot of this long, complex novel, which contains many surprises and never goes quite as you expected. It is not only a penetrating look at the Deep South today, but it has roots extending into the lawless past. Reading this book, I was struck by the fact that Grisham is not only a skilled storyteller, but a fine writer as well.

In addition to the money for the housekeeper, Hubbard left 5 percent to his church and another 5 percent to a long-absent brother, Ancil. Detectives are hired to find him, but weeks pass with no result, and it begins to seem likely that he is dead. The trial, which does not begin until the last part of the novel, goes well until the opposing lawyer springs a surprise witness who seems to destroy Lettie's credibility, and Jake's case falls apart.

Grisham is on home turf here, and the trial is detailed and highly realistic -- it convinced me that this is exactly what would happen. Grisham is a native of Mississippi and had a small legal practice before writing his first novel. He's written more than 30 books since then, but he clearly hasn't forgotten where he came from.

Even his characters seem drawn from life: the black sheriff; the disbarred drunk who wants to help but cannot be relied on; the folksy, but gifted, lawyer who opposes him; the bitter litigants who feel their inheritance has been stolen from them; the judge who comes on like a Southern cliche, but turns out to be wiser than he seems.

I've read a good many of Grisham's novels, and while I've enjoyed most of them, I have never read one that seemed to be so close to life. This is how he really sees the land he came from, and I'd rate it the best novel he's written.

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