The bestseller lists in hardcover fiction are about to recalibrate like slot machines with the publication this week of John Grisham’s new novel, Sycamore Row, the highly-anticipated sequel to Grisham’s first and most literary novel, A Time to Kill.
Readers have had to wait a long time to see Grisham’s first protagonist and presumptive alter ego, Jake Brigance, pacing around a courtroom again—A Time to Kill was published twenty-five years ago. A lot has happened along the way, such as twenty-four other Grisham bestsellers, totaling a quarter of a billion books sold.
But there’s even more Grisham-mania in store for this week. For the first time ever it will be on a Broadway stage. New York City doesn’t usually call to mind the bucolic, languid rhythms of the Deep South, but the southern manners and racial tensions of Mississippi are coming to town with the staged version of A Time to Kill opening at the Golden Theatre this week.
Much like the novel upon which it is based, the play tells the story of a small-town, raw Mississippi lawyer who takes on the criminal trial of a lifetime that just so happens to also pull back the curtain on Mississippi’s racial ghosts. The resurrection of Jake Brigance, in both the play and in Sycamore Row, is a poignant reminder of how this fictional character launched the literary career of an actual small-town lawyer who would become both his own publishing brand and one of the most important writers of his era.
Between the film adaption, the Broadway production, and the sequel, the author of the original novel now has to contend with the many faces of his alter ego, Jake Brigance.
“ I sold the film rights only after the director, Joel Schumacher, convinced me he would uphold the story. He did, and I’ve always enjoyed the movie,” Grisham said. “Now, some 15 years later, a playwright named Rupert Holmes has convinced me he will stay true to the story. I saw the play two years ago in Washington and found it entertaining and compelling. At this point, I look really smart by timing the opening of A Time to Kill with the publication of its sequel. But it’s dumb luck. If we had tried to plan it, there’s no way it would’ve worked.”
There’s a great sentimentality surrounding A Time to Kill—for its readers and author alike. Grisham’s first book stands out among his other bestsellers because it was written in the style of a Southern literary novel, more akin to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor than to Scott Turow. In conjuring Jake Brigance, a crusading and righteous southern attorney, Grisham created a character very similar to that other great principled lawyer in Southern literature, Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Alabama’s Finch and Mississippi’s Brigance, standing a generation apart, could have opened up their own law firm together. Many of Grisham’s characters possess a strong moral streak.
“I haven’t thought of it like that,” Grisham said, “but, sure, their actions are based on what they think is right. They avoid wrongs, especially Jake. His character is autobiographical, and I like to think I have a clear sense of what’s right.”
Perhaps to prove its literary mettle, A Time to Kill, at first, sold only modestly (it has since sold fifteen million copies). From there Grisham went on to write two bestsellers with The Firm and The Pelican Brief, legal thrillers that also made for heart-stopping feature films. Those subsequent books showcased this lawyer-writer as a master storyteller—despite his initial literary aspirations. The change from literary to commercial, however, was mostly an accident.
“When I began writing A Time to Kill almost 30 years ago,” Grisham said, “my only goal was to simply finish it. I had never written before and was not sure where the line between literature and popular fiction actually ran. Still not sure. I just wanted to capture the story, to tell it from the eyes of a young idealistic lawyer, much like myself. The reception was rather frosty, primarily because so many agents and editors did not like the subject matter. So, with The Firm, I decided to try something more commercial. I wanted to sell books and walk out of the law office.”
After all that commercial success, it took a quarter of a century for Grisham to return to his literary roots, his fictional Ford County with its large injustices played out in small courtrooms among modest men.
For many, perhaps precisely because of its literary pedigree and autobiographical tone, A Time to Kill remains Grisham’s best book, and Jake Brigance is poised to end up Grisham’s most enduring character.
The Broadway play remains faithful to the story. Brigance represents Carl Lee Hailey, a father who intentionally murders the two men who raped and nearly killed his ten-year-old daughter. Mississippi’s racist past and the double standard that applies to black men who come before the law raises a moral question with legal implications: Are there times when killing is justified and, in such situations, should the law simply look the other way? Despite this weighty theme with its high drama, the play, like the novel and film before it, possesses the dry humor and quaint folksiness of an episode of Matlock—Seersucker suit and all.
Sycamore Row finds Jake Brigance three years after his celebrated defense of Carl Lee Hailey with yet another relic of Mississippi’s cursed racial divide. His task is to defend the handwritten last will and testament of a wealthy landowner who disinherits his children and gives virtually his entire estate to a female African-American caretaker who has been in his employ for only a short time. Was he the victim of “undue influence” or is Jake’s dead client trying to send a message—and to right a terrible wrong—from his grave? The traumatic past continues to play tricks on the new South.
A Time to Kill and Sycamore Row are driven by injustices that can’t really be redressed through the law alone. The crimes of the Deep South echo beyond the quaint courtrooms; the closing summations, regrettably, do not end in closure. Jake Brigance, affable and oozing in southern charm, and guided by a sense of justice that is perhaps more moral than legal, maintains the impulse to do the right thing—whether it is in keeping one client out of the electric chair or in fulfilling the testamentary wishes and redemptive act of another. Honor matters to Brigance, and to the man who in Jake has found his alter ego.
“A Time to Kill is very autobiographical, and so is Sycamore Row,” Grisham acknowledged. “For ten years I practiced law in a small town in Mississippi, handling criminal cases and injury cases for people with no money, always dreaming of the big trial. This is why those two books have a level of authenticity that the others probably lack. Plus, there are so many wonderful characters who hang around courthouses in small towns. After all, the majority of us believe in honor and redemption, justice and equality, though the minority is large enough to keep life interesting.”