Arich, reclusive old man named Seth Hubbard, already dying of lung cancer, hangs himself from a sycamore tree outside Clanton, Miss., one rainy afternoon in 1988. The previous day he wrote a new will that left nothing to his two children and more than $20 million to his housekeeper, Lettie Lang, who had nursed him in his final illness. He also wrote to the Clanton lawyer Jake Brigance, asking him to defend his will against all legal challenges. Such challenges were predictable, in part because Hubbard was white and the woman he chose to receive his fortune is black.
Thus begins John Grisham’s powerful new novel, “Sycamore Row.” It takes the author back to Clanton (think Klan Town) and to Brigance, the young lawyer who in Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill” (1989), defended a black man who killed two white men who had raped his daughter.
Grisham’s return to Clanton is triumphant. “Sycamore Row” is easily the best of his books that I’ve read and ranks on my list with Stephen King’s “11/22/63” as one of the two most impressive popular novels in recent years. Grisham, at 58, has many books ahead of him, but this could be the one he’ll be remembered for.
It’s an ambitious, immensely readable novel about a bitterly contested will, but about other things as well. It’s often funny and sometimes tragic. If at least a few scenes don’t move you to tears, you may not be alive. It’s above all a novel about the Deep South, about Mississippi, where Grisham lived his formative years. At one point, Brigance tells an older lawyer that the battle over the will is simply about money. The man replies, “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.” He’s right, of course.
The story begins in 1988, just three years after Brigance won the acquittal of the black man who killed the white rapists. That victory brought him celebrity and endeared him to the black people of Clanton, but it didn’t bring much money. He’s still a struggling “street lawyer,” living with his wife and daughter in a cramped rented house. The Ku Klux Klan burned down his previous house, during the earlier trial. Clanton now has a black sheriff, Brigance’s friend Ozzie Walls, and it’s possible to have two or three black people on what were previously all-white juries. The question is whether a predominantly white jury will agree to make a black housekeeper one of the richest women in Mississippi.
Lang is 47, a decent woman who has lived a hard life. She cleans white people’s houses for $3 or $4 an hour. She has a husband who’s more interested in drinking than working and a son in prison. Once the possibility of her enrichment is clear, however, she has a houseful of relatives and would-be friends who are determined to share her good fortune.
The dead man’s shallow, selfish children rarely spoke to him, and his scorn for them is made clear in his will. They, however, are soon proclaiming their endless love for dear old dad, and their lawyers are insisting that Lang exercised “undue influence” on the dying man, by which they mean sex, although that seems unlikely. The greed and duplicity of lawyers is a major theme of the novel, as it has been in previous Grisham tales. Their avarice is often amusing, but sometimes not, as when one lawyer sends someone to break into another law office and steal a document that might derail Lang’s case.
At the outset, Brigance seems to have a good chance of winning the case, but Grisham keeps placing huge obstacles in his path. As this unfolds, “Sycamore Row” is enlivened by many colorful characters, including the crusty old judge who tries the case (“Do you think I’m stupid or deaf?” he demands of one talkative lawyer) and two older lawyers — one disbarred, both alcoholic — who are Brigance’s friends and advisers. One, in a heartfelt aside, admits, “I don’t want to die and I don’t want to give up Jack Daniels, so I’m in a constant quandary.”
It has long been clear that the prolific Grisham is a great storyteller, but much depends on what story he comes up with. The novels I’ve read have always been entertaining, but their stories have often been fanciful and slight. This time Grisham has found a story that permits the full use of his powers. For all the novel’s humor and satire, its ending reflects the writer’s absolute understanding of Mississippi’s unspeakable history of racial violence.
There’s a point when one of Brigance’s hard-drinking friends is trying to read “another impenetrable Faulkner novel.” I have no idea why Grisham tossed that in, but for any writer to invite comparison with Faulkner is risky business. In this case, however, I think that if Faulkner were still down in Oxford and chanced to read “Sycamore Row,” he would raise a glass of good bourbon and toast the younger writer for a job well done.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 464 pp. $28.95