Onyx reviews: Sycamore Row by John
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
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.
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.
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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