The fall of 2013 is proving to be a season of sequels for several New York Times best-selling authors. Stephen King took us back to the world of Danny Torrence in Doctor Sleep and now John Grisham takes us back to the world of Jack Brigance with Sycamore Row.
While King’s novel moved Danny forward to modern times and filled in the gaps of the best several decades, Grisham only takes us forward three years after the events of his first (and still his best) novel A Time To Kill.
Jake Brigance is still living off the reputation he gained in Ford County for his past victory. But winning in the courtroom hasn’t necessarily made everything rosy for Jake and his family. Still living in a rented house after theirs was burned down by the KKK, Jake is battling the insurance company for a settlement and trying to keep his legal business afloat. Jake has a lot of cases, but money isn’t necessarily rolling in like he hoped it would.
Then one Monday morning, Jake opens the mail to find the will of Seth Hubbard send to him. The new will, written a day before he took his own life (Hubbard is dying of cancer), cuts out his children and leaves a small portion of his estate to his church and a large portion of his estate to his housekeeper, Lettie. He also instructs that Jake is the lawyer for his estate and not the high-priced law-firm with whom he wrote his initial will.
Jake is told to keep these details under wraps until after his funeral. Jake does this, racing the courthouse to file the new will minutes after Hubbard’s funeral is over.
Needless to say, this turn of events doesn’t sit well with Hubbard’s family nor his former legal team. For one thing, they were all counting on a huge windfall when Hubbard shuffled off this mortal coil. For another, Lettie is African-American and questions of exactly why Seth would leave her a huge amount of money (we’re talking millions here) arise.
Lettie has no more clue than anyone else since she says the relationship with Seth was purely professional and never entered into the realm of romance. She did take care of Seth in his dying days as the cancer slowly ate away at him.
If you have fond memories of A Time to Kill, you’re going to love Sycamore Row. Grisham goes back to his early days as a writer with Jake and invites readers to come along with him. Just as he delved into issues of race and justice with A Time to Kill, so Grisham attempts to do here. And while the legal dilemma isn’t quite as electrifying as an African-American man killing a couple of white men for allegedly raping his daughter, it’s still a compelling one. Grisham keeps the twists coming to help ensure you’ll want to read just one more chapter.
And while Grisham does a solid job of characters in this one (Lettie especially gets a lot of development), there are still several who feel underdeveloped or that come across as little more that adversaries for us to dislike and root against. I’m thinking specifically of Seth Harper’s children, who are presented with few redeeming qualities and never get any more development than being money-grubbers who took their father for granted. Looking back on the novel, I wish Grisham had put a bit more development into them or given us some better understanding of their motivation to help them seem less black and white.
Sycamore Row is one of the better novels that Grisham has written of late. It comes very close to being as good as A Time to Kill, but it unfortunately falls a bit short. Whether that’s because it’s competing with my memories of a A Time to Kill or whether it’s that Sycamore Row has a couple of flaws, I’m not sure. It may send me back to the original for a re-read to find out.