Tag Archives: A Time to Kill

Grisham’s Whistler ho-hum

I remember when I first read my first John Grisham book.  The Firm was (and is) a pulse-pounding, labyrinthine legal thriller, expertly plotted and with characters you care about.  Awesome.  I back-tracked and read A Time to Kill, which is now enshrined in my memory in two ways:  the b00k – which made me turn pages ferociously while blinking back tears – and the excellent film featuring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson.  The Pelican Brief.  The Client.  The Runaway Jury.  That man was on a serious roll.

whistlerGrisham’s The Whistler is not up to that standard.  The basis for the story has a lot of promise – an informant tells investigators for an underfunded and undermanned agency that investigates judicial misconduct that a prominent judge has been taking bribes to rule in favor of a Florida mob that’s exploiting an Indian tribe to rake off untold millions in illegal profits from a variety of unsavory ventures.  The investigators – Lacy Stoltz and her partner Hugo Hatch – are a likable, honest, intelligent pair who are pretty naive, and seriously outgunned by both the informant and the bad guys.  Tension ratchets when Hugo is killed, the pair having been lured to a remote location, their car deliberately rammed by a stolen van, and Lacy’s memory of the event is hazy.

There are a myriad of complications – the informant is just a front man for the real whistleblower, who is close to the judge and not difficult to identify. With the exception of Lacy, it’s hard to care much about any of the good guys, and the bad guys are so over the top they’re practically twirling their villainous mustaches.  But most egregiously, the legal noose tightens with little panache – it’s a straight march from figuring out who did what to bringing them to justice, all laid out nice and neatly in the epilogue.  All the ingredients for a legal thriller are there, it’s just not very thrilling.

Still, The Whistler is a huge improvement over Grisham’s most recent book, Rogue Lawyer.  I got that one as a  CD to listen to while making a long drive by car, and actually stopped at a rest stop to look at the cover to make sure it was really John Grisham.  It’s less a novel than a series of long short stories featuring a cage-fighting, low-life defending, underdog defense attorney.  He’s so colorful as to be technicolor, and about as believable as a Marvel comic book.  I’m sure it had its fans, though.

Recommend The Whistler as a Christmas gift for your thriller-loving dad?  If he’s discerning, you might give it a pass.  If not, go for it.  The Whistler may not be vintage Grisham, but it’s still Grisham.



You’ll see it coming with Grisham’s Sycamore Row

SycamoreRow1Legal thrillers!  I’m on a little roll here, first with Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt (Mickey Haller) and now John Grisham’s Sycamore Row (Jake Brigance).  It’s an embarrassment of riches.

First, let’s all agree that John Grisham is the grand poobah of the courtroom drama.   There may have been legal thrillers before Grisham, but he’s made the genre what it is today with his series of books featuring intricate, compelling plots and human characters.   Click here to see his works, many of which have been made into highly successful movies.  We can also agree that John Grisham is a solid writer.  Unlike some famous authors, his books continue to be very well-crafted and well-edited.

So you know Sycamore Row’s going to be worth reading.  And it is.  It’s been a lot of years since Jake Brigance first came to our attention in A Time to Kill, but in Clanton, MS, it’s still 1988.   Following the triumph of the Carl Lee Hailey case, Jake’s struggling to pay the bills and living with his wife and daughter in a rental house (his own home was firebombed by white supremacists during the Hailey trial).   The case led to one good thing, though – out of all the lawyers in Ford County, rich Seth Hubbard picked Jake as the lawyer to handle the distribution of his extensive estate.  Jake learns of this only after Seth hangs himself from a tree outside of town.   His hand-written will leaves 90% of his $20 million estate to his black housekeeper/caregiver, 5% to his brother, and 5% to charity, disinheriting his children.  Seth’s chosen Jake because of his defense of Carl Lee Hailey.  So, while it’s not a murder trial, there’s definitely a courtroom battle looming.

Jake’s challenge is to defend the will and speak for Seth.  That’s pretty hard – judge and jury alike will be quick to assume some undue influence given the balance of racial distrust and deference to blood ties.  Any man who leaves his fortune to his housekeeper and cuts off his blood kin must be either crazy or sleeping with the woman in question, or both.   So Jake has to not only debunk the naysayers, but deliver a compelling motive.

No surprise, he pulls it off.  I think the typical reader will have strong suspicions about what’s coming pretty early in the book, but Grisham is skillful in revealing it, and the final revelation will generate a shiver or two.   And, ever realistic, Grisham addresses the likely outcome of any successful trial of this type: the threat of endless appeals necessitating a settlement agreement.  No clucking from the attorneys who read Sycamore Row.

Of course, having brought up the Michael Connelly book, I have to do a brief comparison.  Here’s what they have in common:

  1. Courtroom drama
  2. Great writing
  3. Matthew McConaughey


a time to kill

Yes,  McConaughey plays both Mickey Haller and Jake Brigance in the films The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) and A Time to Kill (1996).   I had him in my head while reading both books, which is no hardship.  I’d buy a ticket to any sequels he makes in either series!  

When it comes to the novels, I’d give Grisham the edge for writing style, Connelly for plotting.  Both books are on the “must read” list.