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Onyx reviews: Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Where there's a will, there's a fight. Especially when the will in question was written by hand by a wealthy, terminally ill recluse the day before he commits suicide. Most especially when the will explicitly disinherits every member of his family and leaves the bulk of his $20 million estate to his black maid.

The holographic will is perfectly legal. Businessman Seth Hubbard has done his research. He posts the will to lawyer Jake Brigance, one of many attorneys whose offices line the town square in Clanton, MS, leaves a suicide note on his kitchen table, and hangs himself from the limb of a sycamore tree. Accompanying the will is a letter that acknowledges that the document will likely be challenged. Hubbard instructs Jake to spare no effort and expense in ensuring its terms are followed to the letter. As an indication of the ill will within the family, Hubbard also tells Jake to keep its terms confidential until after the funeral to guarantee that his children and grandchildren will weep crocodile tears before learning they've been disinherited.

Sycamore Row is billed as a sequel to Grisham's debut novel, A Time to Kill, in which Jake defended a black man accused of murdering the white men who raped his daughter. Three years have passed, but Jake is still suffering the repercussions of that case. He garnered kudos and some celebrity for his legal acumen, but he also enraged Klansmen, who burned down his house and continue to bedevil him. Some of them are eligible for parole and others were never prosecuted, so the police keep a close watch on his tiny rental house. The insurance company has been refusing to pay out his claim (partly because of Jake's brash attitude), so Jake and his family are struggling to save enough money to rebuild or purchase a new home. Competition for business in Clanton is strong. Acting on behalf of the Hubbard estate could be the answer to many of his financial problems, especially if the contest is prolonged.

Sure enough, every one with an interest in the estate comes out of the woodwork, armed with a team of lawyers. They intend to challenge Hubbard's state of mind (if he was suicidal and was taking strong pain killers as part of his cancer treatment, he couldn't have been compos mentis) and the possibility that his maid, Lettie Lang, who had been with him for the past three years and had acted as his nurse during his final months, exerted undue influence on him. The family, who begrudged every penny of the "exorbitant" $5 an hour Hubbard paid Lang, is willing to try every dirty trick in the book, including digging into Lettie's past and insinuating that she had an improper relationship with the old man.

Jake emphasizes time and again that Lettie is not his client, even though her interests are aligned with his. He represents the will and Hubbard's intent. Splitting the estate among the family and Lettie would give everyone more money than they could ever have hoped to see in their lifetimes. However, Hubbard's instructions are clear: he doesn't want his family to get a penny. It is Jake's duty to fight for that.

No one's life is on the line this time, nor is anyone's liberty, so the stakes are somewhat lower than with the Carl Lee Hailey trial. This time, it's all about money and, as before, race. Even in 1988, a lot of people are violently opposed to the idea that a black woman could become the richest person in Ford County. However, there are mysteries to be uncovered and reputations to preserve. Hubbard had a brother who stands to inherit 5% of the estate. No one has heard from him in years and he may well be dead.

Jake works closely with the judge assigned to the case to make sure everything is above board and by the numbers. His alcoholic former mentor shows signs that he wants to get back into the game after being disbarred, which cause Jake no small amount of anguish. The book's biggest enigma is Lettie Lang. Though readers may come to understand why Hubbard did what he did, they will never get a good sense of who this pivotal character is.

The judge convinces Brigance to opt for a jury trial, primarily because he doesn't want to be responsible for deciding this controversial case. Empanelling an impartial jury is one of the biggest hurdles Brigance faces, or so he thinks. When the case finally goes to court, opposing attorneys batter him with a series of surprises worthy of Perry Mason.

Though the resolution may seem at first like deus ex machina, Grisham did lay some foundation for the revelation. It might also be argued that Jake fought tooth and nail to line his pockets with attorney fees, only to capitulate at a certain point. 

Sycamore Row is unlikely to overshadow A Time to Kill as a rival for To Kill a Mockingbird, but readers will enjoy revisiting these familiar characters and understand at the end of the day what it was Jake was fighting for.

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