Hello again, Jake Brigance! You’ve come back at the right time. It’s nice to return to the courtroom with someone we trust. It’s reassuring to remember that not everyone is crazy and unpredictable, and that books, even books about crime and punishment, can help restore our equilibrium in this season of high anxiety.
“A Time for Mercy” is the third John Grisham novel to feature Brigance, a small-town Mississippi lawyer specializing in unpopular, seemingly unwinnable cases. He first appeared more than 30 years ago in Grisham’s debut novel, “A Time to Kill” (1989), which began with a printing of 5,000 copies but became a runaway best seller (and a movie, starring Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock) after the explosive popularity of Grisham’s second novel, “The Firm” (1991), which didn’t feature Brigance.
Set in 1985 in the fictional town of Clanton, Miss., “A Time to Kill” described Jake’s defense of an undeniably guilty but very sympathetic client — a Black man on trial for killing the two white men who brutally raped his 10-year-old daughter. The novel is a nuanced, sensitive portrait of a particular time and place in a rural south still riven by racial discord and infected by the Ku Klux Klan, a fine work wrapped inside a legal thriller. Some readers like it best of all Grisham’s books.
Jake reappeared in “Sycamore Row” (2013), this time in the service of a recently deceased client with an idiosyncratic view of estate planning. (Among other things, this client left most of his considerable fortune not to his children but to his Black housekeeper, and not for the reasons you might think.) And now comes “A Time for Mercy.” You get the feeling that Grisham, who has written several dozen books by now, has returned to the place closest to his heart.
Thirty-one years have passed in the real world since we were first in Clanton, but only five in its fictional life. (How satisfying to see time plodding along at its own pace, back in those sleepy days before smartphones or the internet.) Jake is still living with the repercussions of the earlier murder trial. Once again, he is broke; once again, he takes on a case nobody else wants; once again, he finds himself saddled with a client whose excellent reasons for committing murder do not change the fact that he is indeed guilty.
Grisham lays out the grisly back story in the tense opening pages. A sheriff’s deputy comes home drunk and violent, and proceeds to beat his girlfriend unconscious while her two teenage children cower upstairs. As she lies there, apparently dead, her 16-year-old son, Drew, grabs the cop’s gun and kills him in a fit of fury and fear. He’s charged with capital murder, which carries the death penalty. Clanton reserves a special level of hatred for cop killers.
Jake knows that no good can come of his decision to represent Drew. He is already tens of thousands of dollars in debt, Drew’s family is indigent, and the work will pay next to nothing. Half the town, including the entire law-enforcement community, is furious at him. In the diner where he eats breakfast, longstanding acquaintances turn their backs.
But the judge in the case, with the Dickensian name of Omar Noose, all but orders him to go ahead. “The situation can get dicey and needs a steady hand,” the judge says. “I trust you, Jake, and that’s why I’m asking you to step in.”
The trial doesn’t come until three-quarters of the way through the book. This is a leisurely story, told by a master of plotting and pacing, and there’s no use in him or us rushing our way through it. Grisham puts us inside the heads not just of Jake and Drew, but also of an extended cast of characters — the lawyers, the cops, the prosecutors, the relatives, Judge Noose, Jake’s informal team of advisers. Clanton is a complicated town, a community of old grudges and deep connections driven by forces like race, class, religion, politics and family. Grisham helps us understand, if not quite sympathize with, most everyone in the book.
The trial is riveting, but don’t expect anyone to burst into the courtroom at the last minute waving a piece of paper that upends the proceedings. The jurors aren’t secretly sleeping with the lawyers; the judge is not being paid off by the local crime boss. But it’s striking how suspenseful the story is anyway, how much we’re gripped by the small details.
I was reminded, oddly enough, of the great Danish political TV drama “Borgen,” which derives excitement not from soap opera-ish, “House of Cards”-style developments but from the viewers’ investment in the outcome of carefully crafted, un-showy plotlines.
In “Borgen,” you become caught up in the suspense of whether the Danish Parliament can muster the votes to pass its farm bill. In “A Time for Mercy,” you care, very much, whether Drew’s mother can pay for a new transmission for her car; whether Drew’s schooling can continue in prison before the trial; and whether the judge will let Jake embark on a particular line of questioning. Not all the tangents are fully fleshed-out. Grisham is uncharacteristically insensitive in his portrayal of a pregnancy subplot, and there’s an ancillary court case involving a railroad that fades in and out of importance in a way that feels unsatisfying.
But I found this book so useful to my psyche. Reading can be difficult right now. It’s hard to escape the anxious noise in our heads, the sense that the world is falling apart right outside our doors. Every reader is different, and some people might well like to fall into flamboyant thrillers with high body counts, corrupt officials and preposterous plot twists.
Clanton is the wrong town for them. There’s a quiet goodness in many of its residents.
Sure, tension always shimmers beneath the surface. Not everyone is a decent person. Life is unfair. Neat resolutions are hard to come by.
But the lawyers believe in professional courtesy, and in acknowledging jobs well done. The sheriff believes in playing by the book. The ladies in the church believe that helping the struggling family of a teenage murderer is the right thing to do. Judge Noose is determined to see that justice, or some version of it, prevails.
And at a time when our opinions are terrifyingly polarized, Grisham reminds us that people aren’t one thing or another, but composed instead in shades of gray.
Toward the end of the trial, the jury is struggling to reach a verdict. Fights are breaking out.
The judge instructs them to try harder.
“I want each of you, regardless of how you now feel about this case, to begin anew from the position of accepting the opposing view,” he says. “We are in no hurry.”