Cooperstown Crier - Your Source for Hometown News - Cooperstown, Baseball Hall of Fame

January 2, 2014

Grisham makes civil law dramatic in new book

David Kent
Cooperstown Crier

---- — John Grisham has the unique ability to write well, tell a good story, and educate his readers at the same time. His latest novel, “Sycamore Row,” is a prime example of that. It deals with a contested will and how the legal system works in hashing out the issue. Nothing is ever cut-and-dry and Grisham uses that fact and his experience as a lawyer to provide an intriguing story.

“Sycamore Row” is a loose sequel to his first novel, “A Time to Kill.”  I say “loose” because it can stand alone on its own. Many of the main characters are the same but unless you just read “A Time to Kill” you would not remember any of them. I read the book 15 years ago so I have no recollection of them or their personalities.

By the way, if you like Grisham novels and have not read “A Time to Kill” it is well worth it. It is not only an intense page-turner but says a lot about how hard it is to break into the publishing industry. 

Grisham was turned down by 28 publishers before a small firm agreed to print a limited edition of the novel. Once his second novel, “The Firm,” became a best-seller, “A Time to Kill” was re-issued and deservedly became a best-seller on its own.

I might also add here that if Grisham is your standard-issue American lawyer then the profession reeks of coffee. Every one of his novels seems to include the main character having a fresh pot of coffee every morning, noon, and night. Perhaps the best way to reduce the number of lawyers in this country is to ban the product outright. But I digress.

Back to the novel at hand. 

“Sycamore Row” begins with a man in rural Mississippi who hangs himself because he is dying of cancer and can’t stand the pain anymore. At the last minute he writes a new will to supersede his old one leaving most of his money to his black housekeeper and deliberately cutting out his kids. He mails the will with a handwritten note to the novel’s protagonist, a lawyer named Jake Brigance, explaining he knows what he’s doing and to defend the new will to the hilt.

Naturally, when the kids, who are now adults, get wind of the will and the millions at stake they hire high-priced lawyers to contest the whole thing. Not only do they want the money but they (along with everyone else) wonder why their father would leave all the money to a poor African American woman. It’s hard to have sympathy for the kids since they are basically scumbags who have been estranged from their father for several years.

The black housekeeper appears to be an honest, upstanding citizen, but she is also shrouded in a bit of mystery and has a bunch of leeches for a family. Her husband is a drunk and philanderer with more vices than a Klingon. However, she appears just as puzzled as to why the father would leave his savings to her.

Most of the lawyers who appear in the novel reflect the stereotype of their profession. They are basically sharks that only care about winning and will apply any means to achieving that goal. Even though it appears the father was of sound mind and body when he wrote his new will the sharks will try to prove otherwise. Trashing the credibility and reputation of the cleaning lady is part of the process.

The education we readers receive is seeing how the judicial system works in these types of cases, at least in Mississippi. We’re talking about a civil trial here and not a criminal one. There is no quick fix unless the two sides settle and that would take away the suspense of the novel.

First, the lawyers must go through the process of discovery and taking depositions. These are often quite dull, lengthy affairs and even the lawyers sometimes fall asleep.

Following that is the selection of the jury. It sounds straightforward but is anything but. Rich law firms hire professional jury consultants who analyze every juror who might be selected. These specialists have reduced jury selection to an art form and are well compensated for what they do. It’s bizarre, unseemly, and perfectly legal. But it’s also no guarantee to work either.

Lastly, there are the investigators who leave no stone unturned trying to find witnesses who will destroy the credibility of the other side. These “witnesses” often include medical “experts” who will say anything for a fee. You can always find someone with professional credentials who will refute the findings of another so-called “expert.”

With all the preparation and so much at stake the trial itself is bound to take some unusual and unexpected turns. Grisham is very good at keeping up the suspense and throwing in some great subplots along the way.  “Sycamore Row” isn’t quite as good as “The Litigators” but it’s still one of his better novels. His fans will not be disappointed.