Friday, January 3, 2014

A Time to Kill

I am fairly new to the John Grisham train, having read only two of his books to date (The Brethren and The Last Juror). Several folks indicated to me that Grisham's best works were his early ones. I decided to take this advice and selected as my next Grisham read, his first book from 1989, A Time to Kill. The story takes place in Ford County, a backwoods corner of Mississippi still battling with many of the same issues and racial divides from the 1960s and 1970s. It begins as two rednecks, drunk and doped up, decide to amuse themselves by taking captive a 10-year black girl. They rape her repeatedly, beat her, and try to hang her before leaving her for dead. However, the child is found and relays enough information for the sheriff to round up the rednecks and arrest them. After the arraignment, the victim's father Carl Lee Hailey, waited in a closet with an M-16. When the two criminals came within range, he gunned them down. Carl Lee's act had been carefully planned out and discussed with those closest to him. It was something that he would rather not do, but to him, he had no choice as a man or as a father.

Carl Lee was arrested for the double homicide of the two men who raped his daughter. The state was seeking the death penalty and there was no doubt as to the who, what, when, where, and why. The case quickly generated major publicity and the press descended upon Ford County to cover the trial. The state was represented by the D.A. who had long held political aspirations, including a run for governor. He was determined to revel in the spotlight, preening and strutting about the stage for all to see. The defendent was represented by Jake Brigance, a man whose motives are not fully pure either. He sees this case as an opportunity to increase his reputation, but there is something that grounds him a bit. Perhaps it is the fact that he has a young daughter and if anything happened to her, he would not hesitate to act as judge, jury, and executioner. As the trial goes on, Ford County is swarmed by thousands of blacks who support Carl Lee and a polluting seed of the KKK who are using everything in their power to bribe, to extort, and to get a conviction.

As the first published novel by an author, this one was not bad. However, I think that the character of Jake Brigance needed to be developed further to enable us to understand his actions and choices. What were his morals and his convictions? Also, I felt that the courtroom scenes during the trial of Carl Lee were more than a bit lacking. The lawyers lost their cools within moments of the trial starting, and both fell prey to lawyering 101 tactics from the other side. Still, the questions of whether or not vigilante justice is ever appropriate were worth considering. Despite some flaws, I still found this book an enjoyable read.