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Book review: <i>A Time To Kill</i> by John Grisham

the cover of the book

A Time To Kill is the first novel of John Grisham, written in 1989. And it’s not half bad, if you’re into that kind of thing.

The story

When Carl Lee Hailey’s wife rings him at work to tell him their daughter is missing, he doesn’t hurry home. Gwen’s been known to overreact about such things. But when he does get home at the usual time, life as he knows it has been turned completely on its head. His ten year old daughter, Tonya, was picked up by two rednecks, raped, then dumped. Luckily, she was found and brought home, and although badly hurt, she lived.

The community, especially the African American community of whom the family are members, are up in arms and demanding justice. Ozzie the sheriff, who is related to the Hailey's, goes and picks up the two boys responsible, as identified by Tonya. This isn’t enough for Carl Lee, who arranges a weapon from a friend, plots his route into the courthouse, and guns down his daughter’s rapists on the stairs. He then goes straight to his brother’s lawyer, Jake, to get him off.

For Jake, this is the case of his career. A young lawyer, out on his own and barely making ends meet, winning this one would set he and his family up for life. And with the assistance of his old friend Lucien, a dirty smart divorce lawyer named Harry, and a surprise godsend of a paralegal nick-named “Ro-Ark”, he might just be able to see this one through.

But it’s tough. Firstly, every lawyer around wants the case and they aren’t above a little ambulance chasing. Then, the Klan get involved. Pretty soon, Jake’s life is being threatened, his family, and all the people he works with. The national guard are called into the small southern town to keep the peace, and the clashes with protesters and Klan are heightening by the day. And, of course, the unavoidable problem... which way will the jury go? Can Jake maintain his sanity, his life, AND win the biggest case in his career?

The style

I found A Time To Kill fairly interesting; it kept my attention and there was a lot about the complex relationships, social commentaries and impartial writing style that I enjoyed. I found the story to be somewhat reminiscent of Perfect Match by Jodi Picoult (which was written later than A Time To Kill), but I found A Time To Kill tackled the issues with more three dimensionality and complexity than Picoult.

A Time To Kill is written in the third person limited from a collection of different perspectives, but mainly Jake’s. I really enjoyed the character of Jake, whom Grisham didn’t lionise or perfect. Instead, Grisham left him believable, vain, compassionate yet sometimes cold and, above all, complex character. I believed in Jake. I even kind of liked him. And I liked how he wasn’t being proclaimed as one of the good guys... in this story, there was no cut and dry “good guys”. Each character came with their own prejudices, issues and opinions. Grisham’s style in this was to give each character their voice and allow the reader to take a side. This technique worked really well, because it involved the reader in the moral dilemmas presented by the story.

I also respect the way Grisham dealt with the race issue in the small southern town, which is sticky at the best of times because the author is always tempted to moralise. Grisham allowed the characters to tell the story, which worked beautifully and gave a sense of the emotions and beliefs within the township rather than of the author. Of course, you could tell where his sympathies lay, but for a first novel his ability to write impartially was very impressive.

Taking these positive points into account, the character that most disappointed me was the sassy paralegal who showed up to help out Jake, Ellen Roark. While you always need to have a pretty girl in the mix, she was sadly lacking in three dimensionality, and it felt as though she had only been chucked in for sex appeal even though she was supposedly ridiculously intelligent. Or, maybe I just resented her dress sense, which was laughably dated. I’m sure that at the time of writing, it was all the rage for ladies to wander about dressed in fashionably pressed jeans, loafers with no socks, and over sized mens’ shirts tucked into the jeans with NO BRA UNDERNEATH. And Grisham, while not feeling the need to dress up the other characters in the story so vigourously, made a big deal of Ellen’s outfits. Sure, it was sexy in the late eighties... but blech. It was just distracting, and detracted from the point of the character in the story. I hope Grisham got better at writing girls after that.

Unfortunately, the way the story ended was also disappointing. Grisham really nailed the essence of plot twist in The Firm, but I think in this, his first attempt, he was a bit hesitant and the resolution just didn’t have that oomph or punch to it. It was just a bit clumsy and self conscious. Aside from that, not too bad.

Who is this book for?

Grisham fans, I guess. It’s a fairly decent legal thriller. I wouldn’t class it as outstanding, but it kept me reading and I was definitely hanging out to find out how it would end. Good light travel reading, perhaps.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Other books by John Grisham, particularly if it’s courtroom drama you’re after. If it’s the crime stuff, I recommend moving onto the British authors.

In short

Title: A Time To Kill
Author: John Grisham
Publisher: Dell Publishing Company
ISBN: 0440211727
Year published: 1992
Pages: 515
Genre(s): Fiction, Legal thriller, Airport Novel
Review Type: