Author Grisham puts fictional lawyer back in criminal court

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Looking back over 31 years of a meteoric writing career that ranks him as one of the most successful writers on the planet, novelist John Grisham’s flawed hero from his very first novel might well be a forgotten figure among the hundreds the author has created.

Yet like a bad penny, Grisham has kept young, idealistic and sometimes foolhardy attorney Jake Brigance handing around the Ford County Courthouse in Clanton, Mississippi. Readers will be so glad he did.

Now, 31 years after the 1989 publication of “A Time to Kill,” comes another scandalous murder in Ford County. Once again, Jake Brigance is appointed to defend another client whose case no other attorney wants to take. In Clanton time, the case is five years removed from “A Time to Kill.”

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Grisham’s new vehicle for Jake Brigance is called “A Time for Mercy,” and it is already at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Readers first met Jake in “A Time to Kill.” Brigance, a struggling white attorney in a small Mississippi town, was appointed to defend Carl Lee Hailey, a Black man who indeed murdered the two white men who had raped and beaten his 10-year-old daughter.

Grisham’s travails in finding a publisher for that first novel remain the stuff of legend in Mississippi. He was a member of the Mississippi Legislature when Wynwood Press finally published the book. They printed a few thousand copies, and Grisham hauled and sold books in the trunk of his car in the early days.

I was introduced to John by one of his colleagues in the Mississippi House of Representatives. We shared a love of Mississippi State baseball. He was smart, not overly impressed with himself, and I liked him immediately.

But when I read “A Time to Kill” after that meeting in my newspaper office, I was astounded at the power of his storytelling and the quality of his sparse writing style. In a 1989 column, I wrote: “Grisham is a powerful writer who possesses an achingly fine ear for the rhythms of our language. His work is particularly compelling in that Grisham illuminates the most volatile of our Southern cultural idiosyncrasies without apologies.”

In short, Grisham wrote about racism, poverty, class hatred, public corruption, and political and social betrayal — and told a powerful tale in the process.

Grisham’s rise from early morning writing in the laundry room of his Southaven, Mississippi, home to a writer who had sold well over 300 million books worldwide remains an inspiration to every fledgling writer.

In 2009, Grisham would take readers back to Ford County and Clanton in a collection of short stories, but Jake Brigance was not among the vivid characters. New ones, interesting ones, emerged in “Ford County,” but Jake wasn’t among them.

Readers would reencounter Jake Brigance in 2013 in “Sycamore Row” — a more Gothic Southern tale of Reconstruction Era injustice yet still a stern examination of race, class, poverty and the obstacles that small, insular locales erect over to change of any kind. The plotline of “Sycamore Row” was only three years removed from Jake’s defense of Carl Lee Hailey in “A Time to Kill.”

Jake is still struggling financially, and his legal practice labored under white resentment for his willingness to represent Black clients. He’s in debt, his wife is unhappy, and as in our introduction, Brigance is often his own worst enemy.

The book is filled with Jake’s introspections and frank examinations of his own failings. The usual legal drama is tight and compelling. But more interesting is that unlike the first two books, race is not the lowest common denominator.

How the people of Ford County deal with poverty, abortion, capital punishment and attitudes about “mercy” for the indigent and those with no place to go are at the heart of the book. Grisham’s 35th novel is one of his best and will be an absolute fix for Brigance fans.

This is not a Grisham novel with a necessarily neat and tidy ending. But after the realities of 2020, this may be the perfect pandemic novel. Ford County and Clanton are an intriguing place to visit and get lost for a while. There will be a lot of Mississippians finding “A Time for Mercy” under their Christmas trees.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at