John Grisham conceived his first novel after watching the testimony of a 12-year-old girl who had been raped. A Time to Kill was a long time finding a publisher and was not initially successful. Other of his works found greater acceptance, some being made into hit motion pictures before this became a movie of the same name.
A survey of Grisham’s popular works discloses a master builder of plots laced with intense drama, intrigue, and also humanity. His initial work, however, is structured as the narrative of a criminal case. There is the initial crime. There is the crime that answers that crime. There is the defense of the second crime. There is the drama and the tragedy that dogs participants, and there is an ending in vindication, also also a final miscarriage of justice.
The key to the plot is the rape of a 10-year-old girl in rural Mississippi. Beyond that there may be no connection between this plot and the testimony Grisham witnessed in 1984. In this story the rape and attempted murder are inflicted by two pieces of white trash upon a black child. That sets in motion the chain of events that consumes the remainder of the book. When the perpetrators are arrested and brought before court in a small town, the girl’s father ambushes and murders them both. He is subsequently arrested, and the result is a trial, defended by a local lawyer and against impossible odds. Racial tensions in the rural South are the fabric that hangs the pieces of the remainder of the story together.
Presumably the setting is post civil rights South, could be the 1980s. Even so, it is obvious this is not the South of the 1950s. Fictional Ford County is predominantly white, but it has a black sheriff, and a popular one at that. People observe that he ensures justice is served evenly. But the red is strong in the neck in Ford County, and it will be most difficult to obtain a favorable verdict for the avenging father, especially when there is never any question of guilt. Lawyer Jake Brigance must obtain a verdict based on diminished capacity. The deck is stacked against him.
His client cannot pay the $50,000 required for such a defense. His client cannot pay the $1000 Jake hopes for. Jake casts his lot with the defendant, a long-time friend, his only hope being ultimate redemption and the financial prospects that come with winning a high-profile case. Salvation comes in the form of a legal mentor with deep pockets and a zeal for the cause. It’s the civil rights campaign of the 1960s replayed in stereotype. All the elements are there, and they are played out under a magnifying glass.
Despite the supposed victories of 50 years ago, a dichotomy simmers beneath the surface. White southerners harbor a deep distrust of their black neighbors. The word “nigger” passes without effort from their lips, only now seldom in mixed company. The Klan makes a deadly resurgence, crosses are burned, jurors are intimidated, people are murdered. The National Guard is brought in to enforce order as tensions boil over. There is a sniper attack on Jake that ends with a soldier paralyzed. Parading klansmen are attacked, one burned to death. Jake’s house is torched. Multiple Klan attacks are thwarted by a Klan mole. The informer is ultimately tied to a cross and burned to death. A cultured, glamorous, and brilliant law student gives inestimable aid in preparing Jake’s case before she is kidnapped and brutalized by the Klan. Black civil rights leaders are exposed as caring more for the movement than for Jake’s client. They are prepared to martyr him for the cause.
I watched the movie before reading the book and am satisfied the movie is a close rendition. The movie shows an unholy lack of situational awareness on the part of Jake’s legal team. When the threats come, and the physical assaults begin, their recourse seems to be an enormous reliance on recreational alcohol. At a time when people should be keeping their wits about them they are seen dulling their judgment with drink and invoking mindless exposure to the danger that lurks close by in the shadows. By all accounts this has the appearance of a team that deserves to lose.
The central theme is of a man so taken by the injustice about to be inflicted on his family by the uneven treatment his daughter’s attackers will obtain, that he must seek retribution up close and personal. Lacking the racial core of the initial crime, there should have been a straight forward conviction, likely followed by execution of the father. In the end, vindication is achieved, but at the cost of enormous injury to the principle of law.
Numerous anomalies are manifest throughout. Multiple crimes, including homicide, are perpetrated, and the story follows neither their investigation nor any resolution. We witness a massive resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, but no federal response that would ordinarily follow. The Klan is shown as murderously vengeful over what they see as white privilege being trampled, and the commit unspeakable sins in their campaign of intimidation. However, after killing the informant and with none of their number in jeopardy, they slink out of town and melt back into human society. A real-life story would see Klan determination and resolve rebounding after Jake’s client is set free and returned to his family. Nothing in the book adequately explains the Klan’s collapse at the end.
The story has timely significance with the rise of white nationalism following last year’s election. The tragedy of Charlottesville earlier this year highlights the existence of a society that has simmered beneath the surface through human history. In America this social layer is starting to once again feel empowered, and we will possible see events from this book replayed on the evening news.