Review: A Time for Mercy by John Grisham
John Grisham is an institution in the field of legal fiction. In A Time For Mercy, he brings back Jake Brigance, the legal eagle star of A Time To Kill and Sycamore Row. The action is set in 1990, in the armpit of a town that is Clanton. A deputy sheriff is shot and killed by the teenage son of his girlfriend. On-duty deputy Stuart Kofer had a heart of gold, an army vet who had served his country, volunteered in schools and civic clubs, and walked through “the colored section on foot, without a gun and with candy for the kids.” Off-duty Stuart had quite the reputation for drinking too much, starting brawls in bars, gambling, and beating his girlfriend and her kids. Ozzy Walls has been the sheriff of Ford County for over seven years, the only African-American one in all of Mississippi, elected by a landslide, and Kofer is the first man he’s ever lost. The “state boys” have been called in to investigate and Ozzy knows trouble is coming. His biggest problem is the 911 calls Kofer’s girlfriend Josie Gamble made to report his drunken rampages. Kofer’s comrades-in-law have been keeping them quiet from him and now those incident reports have gone missing.
Jake Brigance, a small-time attorney, is about to be handed his second capital murder case and his best and only friend has just told him to leave town before that happens. After all who’d want a dead-cop case in uniform-worshipping rural Clanton. Especially when everyone including the judge and sheriff is up for re-election next year and this case would be the perfect opportunity to “get tough on crime.” Grisham does a wonderful job of showing just how quickly gossip travels in small towns, and the day after Jake has been appointed, threats begin pouring in to his secretary, his friends, and even to the school where his wife works. While the entire county sees a cold-blooded killer, Jake sees the Gamble family as little people single-handedly facing the wrath of an entire system and town; a mother and daughter suffering without having done any wrong.
Grisham does a great job of portraying the folk of Ford County and Clanton. For Kofer’s funeral Jake knows it’s going to be a show, with the whole town showing up, after all, it had, “been decades since we buried an officer.” Jake must not only face ostracism and hatred from the police force for defending the killer of one of their own but the good people of Clanton itself. In the cafeteria of the school where his wife teaches, Jake is told off by a parent: “I can’t believe you would represent a killer like that, Jake. I thought you were one of us.” The “one of us” bit catches him off guard. Grisham channels his observations about the collective hypocrisy of an entire people through the voice of Harry Rex. Throughout the novel Rex is often the voice of an outsider looking in, making comments readers would. At Kofer’s funeral, Rex gives us this zinger, “Hell, you thought Kofer got killed in the line of duty, fightin’ crime like a real cop. Not passed out drunk after he beat his girlfriend.” The dead somehow always manage to find friends.
In the tangled web of conundrums Grisham weaves, Jake must now make decisions that implicate the safety and future of: his family, his law firm, his friends, and colleagues. He must navigate moral and ethical complexities that deal with the nature of killing and its justification. As his cases get intertwined, mortgaged Jake slowly sinks into debt and Grisham sets this lovely potboiler on a slow burn using time to add complexity to characters, switch up events, and give his lawyers plenty of meat. In Jake and Judge Noose we see shades of grey that help make them more relatable and break free from the squeaky-clean defender-of-justice stereotype. At over 400 pages, Grisham might have expounded on the good folk of Ford County just a bit too much. Also, after a point, Jake’s reluctance to take the case sounds a bit forced and fake. But if there is a lull it is soon forgotten once the trial begins.
The trial is where Grisham is in full steam. His handling of the cross-questioning of the witnesses is measured, brief and abrupt. It forces the reader to jump in to ask the questions the lawyers seem to have missed. Like a well-choreographed boxing match, the author hits the high points with formidable gusto. Jake’s arguments are surprising, forceful, and devastating. The prose has banter and more than the odd line stays with the reader. Grisham also uses small insider tricks like witness notes, little flourishes that make this book a joy to read.
What makes A Time for Mercy exceptional is how Grisham chronicles the impact of race on the system of justice and the fundamental questions behind the motives to murder. In a small town with politics, traditions and close-knit communities, can a contrarian lawyer get away with defying those traditions while still keeping his place among those very people? Perhaps only Jake Brigance can.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha