When I begin a Grisham book, I often think, OK, here is another made for TV movie in progress, but this one is actually made for the big screen! Written for popular consumption, this book is an exciting page turner which will really engage the reader. I stayed up half the night to finish it. The legal drama, the courtroom scenes, the characters reactions, interactions and back stories, are all very compelling. The author develops the characters so that they emotionally connect with the reader. Some of the characters are kind of one-dimensional, with a single purpose to fulfill, after which they seem to exit the stage, but they are developed clearly enough so that you feel their personality and intent and identify with their struggles. Racial injustice and racial inequality become full fledged characters in the book, as many conflicting ideas bombard the reader such as: racism, ruthlessness, discrimination, kindness, cruelty, justice, truth, honor, fairness, equality, manipulation, deceit, family loyalty, devotion and exploitation.
This story takes place in a small town in Mississippi, where racism is no stranger. Basically, it is about the last will and testament of a man who commits suicide and leaves almost his entire estate to Lettie, his black housekeeper and sometimes nurse, as he neared the end of his life. The man, Seth Hubbard, knowing he is dying of cancer, plans his death to a “t”, and his will meticulously, but there is another previous will, as well, and that is the crux of the story. Which of the wills is legitimate, the one that disowns his family and bequeaths a large amount of money to Lettie, or the one that does not mention Lettie, and leaves the estate to his children and grandchildren? The obvious legal question, with nasty racial overtones, is why would he leave all that money to his maid and disown the rest of his family, if he was in his right mind? What is the connection between Seth and Lettie? Minds wandered in all sorts of directions, mostly unkind and envious.
As the town discovers the suicide of Hubbard, the lawyer Jake Brigance, receives a letter from him containing his will and his instructions for Jake to handle his estate. He knows his will, will be contested. He beseeches him to fight hard to win so that his children, who do not love him, suffer through his funeral and get nothing for their pain. Jake is famous for another trial in which he represented a black man and won. Unfortunately, he made very little money and his house was burned down by the clan in retribution for his efforts. This case promises to be far more rewarding.
Often, during the evidentiary period, there was a rush to judgment based on simple prejudices. The knee jerk responses were to distrust the woman’s veracity and character, simply because of the color of her skin. The assumption was that a black woman had some nerve expecting to inherit a large amount of money and in no way did she deserve it when they didn’t have it! The strategy of the lawyers opposing Brigance’s handwritten will, was to impugn her reputation to show she had undue influence on the deceased which caused him to change his will. The question of whether or not Mr. Hubbard was of sound mind when he changed his will was uppermost in their minds.
The dark side of the legal system was revealed in all its ignominy. There were crooked and unethical lawyers and judges who sometimes made incorrect decisions which could unfairly and unduly influence the outcome of a case. Racism was front and center, but it was deftly handled. There were slick, black lawyers who came out of the woodwork to try and represent Lettie, using race as the sole issue to win the case. There were publicity seeking white lawyers trying to represent family members in the hopes of winning a large settlement for themselves. They all wanted to win using racism as a spur to gain public appeal, using Lettie as the pawn. They seemed unscrupulous. Lettie was a simple woman with simple tastes who was stunned by the turn of events. Suddenly, relatives were asking her for money. She was overwhelmed as the eyes and ears of the town turned against her. They wondered what she did to inherit so much money.
The plot is simple and the narrative flows smoothly. The racism is always evident, from all sides, in the descriptions of the characters, their comments, their facial expressions, and their actions. The book not only explores the racism, but it explores the altered reality of those people who believe they will inherit large sums of money or believe they will be disinherited and it examines how far they will go to achieve their goals. Money makes strange bedfellows. The story illustrates how lawyers can milk the system and clients can milk and/or betray each other. The drama of the case showed the nasty side of the legal system because winning and not facts were important, innuendo rather than the truth was the ultimate goal, showmanship and not justice governed the result. It seems to be a common theme, even today, for the “performance” to be more important than the qualifications of the performer. Even in our most important elections, it is the showmanship that counts, not the credentials.
As it drew to a conclusion, the book became so exciting I wanted to skip to the end, something I never do, just to relieve the suspense because it was killing me. Even though I suspected strongly that Lettie would prevail, I did not know how that would come about. Sometimes the narrative was far fetched, but always, it was riveting, and in the end, the message will make the reader feel hopeful, as the questions are resolved and the judgments pronounced. I have a feeling that this book was the setup for another one, waiting in the wings, that would deal with Lettie’s daughter, Portia, who interned in Jake’s office during the investigation and wanted to earn a law degree in the future. Is there collaboration for them in the future?