A Time to Kill by John Grisham
Published in 1989
Genre: Legal, suspense, thriller
“Billy Ray Cobb was the younger and smaller of the two rednecks.”
The introduction of these two rednecks leads into a gruesome description of the heinous acts they perpetrate on ten-year-old Tonya Hailey. This sets the tone for John Grisham’s 1989 crime novel, A Time to Kill. The novel brings into question vigilante justice, the lack of trust in America’s judicial system, personal ethics, and digs deep into the psyche of humans and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to right a terrible wrong.
Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard, two white men under the influence of alcohol and narcotics, rape and beat the defenseless form of Tonya, a young black girl they saw walking alone on a dirt road. The men justify their actions to themselves because of the color of her skin and they dump her in a ditch after she is knocked unconscious. She is found in critical condition by local fishermen and the perpetrators are quickly arrested.
While Willard gives up Cobb for the promise of a lighter sentence, we are introduced to the protagonist, Jake Brigance. He is a married defense attorney with a young daughter, a nice house, and his own law practice who enjoys a quiet life in the small town of Clanton, Mississippi.
Carl Lee Hailey, the father of the little girl, plans on killing the rapists and tells Jake; Jake informs Ozzie, the local sheriff, and though they both understand how Carl Lee feels, they don’t think that he will go through with it. Carl Lee does as he warned, however, and shoots the men who raped his daughter in broad daylight as they are leaving the courthouse; Jake becomes Carl Lee’s attorney since he defended and acquitted his brother, Lester.
This high profile case of a black man shooting two white men on the very steps of the courthouse attracts the parasitic press, causing the media to swarm Clanton and Jake begins getting death threats for representing Carl Lee. The case gains national attention and people watch how the case progresses all over the country, each making their own decision as to whether Carl Lee’s actions were justified. Race is a huge factor in the case; Jake worries that the jury will most likely be all white based of the demographic of the town and this may destroy his chances of gaining an acquittal because Carl Lee is black and the men he killed were white.
The death threats continue and crescendo to actual attempts on Jake’s life perpetrated by the KKK, which has been summoned by a family member of Cobb’s who had connections with the group. Those working against the case are doing all they can politically, legally and illegally to affect the trial; black mail, intimidation, and calling in favors are used freely by those seeking a guilty verdict.
Though he is our protagonist, Jake isn’t entirely innocent of this behavior. He loves the media attention, which works toward the promise of more cases if he succeeds, and his ego makes him do questionable things. His opposition in the case, the District Attorney Rufus Buckley, is looking to run for office and wants the Hailey case as a feather in his cap. These two men, though on opposite sides of the courtroom, share some rather distasteful characteristics.
It is during the trial that we see Jake pull out all the stops and show his prowess at controlling a courtroom and its jury. Some heavy setbacks and difficulties arise due to more intimidation and unforeseen circumstances, and rising tension outside the courthouse causes the National Guard to be called in. All of this attention spreads negative stereotypes of Clanton and its people which are perpetrated by the media and their selective coverage. These tourist-reporters make the town and its people seem like nothing but racist rednecks despite them being anything but.
Grisham uses a lot of small details in describing his scenes and setting. The reader is given an in-depth background of Clanton which even includes the histories of the buildings; this helps the reader’s willful suspension of disbelief and adds credibility to the narrator. Grisham writes fluidly and his descriptions of the South and its people brings them to life by giving the reader plenty to identify with.
The underlying question of the book is actually asked multiple times by characters: what would you do if it was your daughter? The answer varies from person to person and this is the struggle of morality that is constantly faced by characters in the book. Do you charge a man who has committed murder in the name of justice in order to bypass a sluggish judicial system, or do you acquit him because you can relate to his situation and sympathize?
It was very difficult for me to continue reading without skipping down to the verdict, which is a testament to how well Grisham sets up all of the pieces in the story. A Time to Kill is a challenging and engaging story of suspense, moral ambiguity, and hard answers to difficult questions; this is one you won’t want to put down quickly.
Verdict: 4 cries of “Free Carl Lee!” out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of ethical dilemmas, those who enjoy suspense, people who like court drama that is well written, and you!
Not recommended for: The intolerant, the easily bored, people who are intimidated by a book with more than 654 pages but less than 656 pages, or children (there is some mature language and content present).