I finished John Grisham’s latest offering this weekend. Sycamore Row tells the story of a small-town southern trial lawyer who gets caught up in a mysterious case of a last-minute will, and the mystery behind it. Why would a terminally ill man suddenly cut his whole family out of his will and give it to his housekeeper? The answer is not what you might imagine. For those of you who have read the book or seen the older movie A Time to Kill with Matthew McConaughey and Samuel Jackson, this movie is the sequel set a few years down the road.
Sycamore Row is neither a great nor a terrible book. Grisham’s dialogue and intimate knowledge of the legal system provides for great mechanisms. His characters are colorful, eccentric, and memorable. The plot points revolve around racism in the South, the legacy of the past, and the drama of a jury trial, only the final part of which actually involves a jury or the trial itself.
This is a safe book. It does not have the danger or flair of The Client or The Firm. The backstory issues cover racism, racial violence, reparations for past wrongs, alcoholism, and the legal profession. People care about these issues, to be sure, but everyone has already made up their mind on them a long time ago. The young laywer Jake Brigance established himself as a likeable hero in A Time To Kill, which is constantly referenced in the story. The plot leans more heavily on deus ex machina than I prefer in my genre fiction, but other strengths made up for it.
Grisham is a master of conversation, often carrying on two at once through clear subtext. There is also a fair amount of fan service, the raw pleasure of seeing things go well for our protagonists. Unlike A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row stacks the odds heavily in Jake Brigance’s favor, so the story cannot approach the tension of a helpless child in danger (The Client) or a lawyer trapped and surrounded by the mob (The Firm), and in the end it is only money at stake, not anyone’s well-being so the novel cannot match the tension of A Time to Kill.
Still, Sycamore Row is a more or less pleasant book. A man of principle stands up for his job and a dying man’s wishes. A plucky old judge fends off circling sharks. The best kind of lawyers face off with the sort that give others a bad name. A husband stays honest to his wife, and good men command the respect of their community. The chord I liked the best is the idea that evil deeds can seem to prevail for a time, but eventually the truth has a tendency to surface in this lifetime or one following. There are some entertaining scenes, but by and large this is what people call an airplane book. Take it on a flight with you, reach your destination and the end of the book with the satisfaction of a certain journey ended, and time well spent.
Recommended to read at least once, or at least borrow.