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by John Grisham, read by Michael Beck
Random House Audio, September 2013
Unabridged pages
ISBN: 0385366477

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

John Grisham has returned his focus to 1980s Clanton, MS, the setting of his 1989 novel, A TIME TO KILL. In that hugely successful courtroom drama, small-time lawyer Jake Brigance successfully defends Carl Lee Hailey against charges that he killed some white men who had tortured, raped, and killed Carl Lee's daughter. The novel has since been made into a major motion picture and is now a Broadway play.

The only wonder is that it took Grisham over twenty years to return to Clanton and its memorable inhabitants. In the new novel, only three years have passed since the Hailey trial, and Jake, far from having been made rich by his winning an acquittal for a Black defendant from an all-white jury, is a struggling attorney. He drives a beat-up car, and his family has not yet straightened out the insurance problems with his house, which was burned down in the first novel. Now, he carries a gun everywhere and scratches out a meager living in a county seat populated by too many lawyers.

Jake's righteous defense of an unpopular Black defendant gets him the case of his lifetime. Seth Hubbard, an eccentric local businessman with an unusual commitment to racial equality in terms of compensating all his employees fairly and equally, writes a last-minute will by hand that disinherits all his blood relations and leaves the bulk of his twenty-million dollar estate to Lettie Lang, his African-American housekeeper. Then he hangs himself. In his revised will, he appoints Jake as the attorney to defend his last wishes. With a probate case that is likely to last years and pay Jake handsomely by the hour, Jake has hit gold.

It isn't long before Seth's two children, Seth's grandchildren, and their lawyers descend on Clanton like the proverbial locusts. Then, of course, Lettie has to hire her own lawyers to defend her interests. Fake investigators appear, dirty tricks abound, and the entire country becomes embroiled in a legal case in which the estate is worth more than the total income of all the town's lawyer's combined.

Grisham does a wonderful job of juggling the lives and schemes of the many litigants and their colorful representatives. He also cleverly brings back some of the more popular characters from A TIME TO KILL, especially the disbarred lawyer, Lucien, who becomes a central figure in this convoluted tale. As this long narrative unwinds, the gripping action and large cast make the novel irresistible.

Sycamore Row also brings back the extremely talented Michael Beck, who was the narrator for A TIME TO KILL and other Grisham novels, such as THE LAST JUROR. Beck is a master of the many dialects of Clanton, whose inhabitants' speech patterns are influenced by their social class, educational background, and the racial divide. If Clanton seems stuck in the pre-Civil Rights era, Beck has his finger on the pulse of its parochial inhabitants. It is also a tribute to Beck that he wends his way so gracefully through the early parts of this rather long legal thriller and gets the listener to the action after the many characters and motives have been put in place. Beck makes it all seem easy, a tribute to his consummate professionalism.

It is no wonder that SYCAMORE ROW is the instant hit many Grisham fans have been waiting for, and the audio is the perfect partner for fans and newcomers to Grisham's work alike.

An avid audiophile, Karla Jay is a retired professor of English and Women's & Gender Studies. She is a frequent contributor to this site.

Reviewed by Karla Jay, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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