” But the system was not working now. It was conspiring to keep him in jail, to break him, to make orphans of his children. It seemed determined to punish him for performing an act he considered unavoidable. ” (Ch.16, p.208)
A Time to Kill, John Grisham’s first novel, is a riveting story of retribution and justice set in the South. Not only does it evoke the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, it resonates even in the present and puts the Ferguson incident into perspective.
The tiny (fictional) town of Clanton, Mississippi, is shocked when two drunk and drug-addled viciously assault and rape a ten-year-old girl. They try to hang her but fail to kill only because they could not find a bridge from which to throw the child. Tonya Hailey sustains both physical and emotional damage. The thugs have wrecked her little body and ruined her mind. They are quickly arrested and charged with kidnapping, rape, and assault, when the girl’s father, a decorated Vietnam veteran, takes the law into his own hands and kills the men outside the courthouse.
You just don’t shoot a person, or persons, in cold blood, and then tell the jury they needed killing, and expect to walk out of the courtroom. (Ch.8, p.100)
The case is complicated by the fact that the victim and her daughter are black while the two dead thugs are white. The young, up-and-coming lawyer, Jake Brigance, is confronted by the most difficult case: a black father has killed two whites who gruesomely violated his daughter. Not only is he has been prejudiced by every person in the county, he is subjected to a trial that is gauged by white standard. The issue is assurance of fairness—because of he racial divide, a black father and a white father would not have equal chances with the jury, let alone a predominantly white jury. The trial of Carl Lee Hailey is therefore a high-profile, volatile, controversial case that arouses passion for and against the defendant. It also brings forth opportunistic lawyers trying to chase the case from Jake Brigance to get public exposure. Carefully orchestrates his defense, Brigance relies on the crucial point of justifiable homicide by reason of insanity. The depiction of legal preparation is brilliant.
It was their lives the State was attempting to justify. Who would miss them except their mothers? Child rapists. Drug pushers. Would society miss such productive citizens? Wasn’t Ford County safer without them? (Ch.40, p.613)
A Time to Kill is a provocative read that grabs you from the start. Grisham raises very thought-provoking questions on races and justice. It’s more than just a page-turning legal thriller. He creates a social fabric through a colorful array of caricatures. The blue blood mentor, the hot-shot defense lawyer, a big city millionaire pimp, the ambitious smug DA, the Klansmen, the church reverend—all play their parts into the diverse perspectives and prejudices revolving around a case where the stakes are high and the pressure continued to build. The book is an intense social commentary that begs the question: can justice be truly color-blind?
655 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]