Almost everyone has heard by now how John Grisham started out selling his first novel, "A Time To Kill," door to door from the trunk of his car. It's a good, very American story of pluck, grit, hardship, determination and confidence. That 1989 novel became a best- seller, then a movie with a dream cast, and most recently a play on Broadway, where it is running now.
It's no surprise that Mr. Grisham's characters, those people who spring from his history and imagination, are determined people who, bad or good, are likely to be willful and very sure of themselves.
In his new novel, "Sycamore Row," set three years after "A Time To Kill," he brings back many of the most memorable characters fixed in our collective memory by the film -- characters played by Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey and Donald Sutherland.
The protagonist is again Jake Brigance, a struggling young lawyer, husband, father, who is famous for his first big case but struggling financially. Into his lap comes a letter with a hand-written will.
Seth Hubbard, wealthy -- more wealthy than anyone at first guesses -- and dying of cancer, has hanged himself and with methodical care arranged everything that will happen after his death.
He has chosen Brigance to enforce his shocker of a will. Hubbard has disinherited his children, grandchildren, and former wives to leave just about everything to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang. A small sliver is left for the church and for his long lost brother. Hubbard writes that his children are "not nice people" and that they will fight Brigance, who "must prevail."
Soon the town is abuzz. How crazy was the old man? Was he heavily medicated and therefore not testamentary? Had he been sleeping with Lettie? Had she manipulated him into changing a standard (thick) detailed will of a year ago in which his children benefited from his great wealth?
The year is 1988. The place is Mississippi. The suicide is gruesome: A man in a suit hanging from a thick sycamore at the edge of his property -- in the rain. The people of Clanton and of Ford County gossip first about the death and then about the oddity of the will, and finally they are shocked when Hubbard's estate is estimated at $24 million. Nobody can imagine that much money.
Lettie, fired by Hubbard's children even before they hear of the new will (they can't imagine paying her an outrageous $5 an hour), must suffer the curiosity and contempt of the town once the will is known. Lettie is unused to the spotlight, but soon everyone knows she has a mean drunk for a husband, an unmarried daughter who got pregnant to two different men, and a multitude of relatives coming from far and wide to get a piece of the pie.
But Mr. Grisham's emphasis is on the law. The novel is a virtual mini-course in probate law and the courts. At one point every character with an interest in the inheritance has lawyered up so that Judge Atlee counts 12 attorneys yipping in his courtroom. And he doesn't like it. Through the filing of petitions, taking of depositions, revelation of witnesses, choosing of the jury, we get to follow the details of the case.
Here is Jake and his town: "He passed the office of the Ford County Times, the Tea Shoppe, which was only now coming to life, a haberdashery where he bought his suits on sale, a black-owned cafe called Claude's where he ate every Friday with the other white liberals in town, an antique store owned by a crook Jake had sued twice, a bank still holding the second mortgage on his home. ... "When he comes to open Hubbard's estate at the Chancery Court at 4:55 on a Tuesday after the funeral, the clerk teases, "We stop working at four, on Tuesdays anyway. Five on Monday. Three on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday you're lucky if we show up."
In Mr. Grisham's Mississippi, if you like someone, you never stop needling. The gluttonous lawyer Harry Rex Vonner invites Jake to have some of his nachos, but Jake wants to get home to his wife. Harry Rex says, "Tell Carla I love her and lust after her body." Jake answers, "She knows it. Later."
I'm strongly reminded of two disparate kinds of writing as I try to describe Mr. Grisham's compelling new novel. One: It's oddly close to nonfiction. As we track this case, all kinds of things happen. Characters seem important, and then they disappear as they do in real life.
The complexity of the case drives the narrative. Two: There are whispers of Lewis Nordan's iconic "Wolf Whistle," a novel about the Emmett Till murder in Mississippi. Both Mr. Grisham and Mr. Nordan capture the flavor of a small Southern town: its reliance on newspaper stories, the resident's natural suspicion of non-locals, plenty of alcohol consumption, a constant choral gossip that is almost a melody, and the pull of a tragic story about race underneath the buzz of ongoing life.
Kathleen George (kathleengeorge.com) is the author of six crime novels set in Pittsburgh; her seventh, "A Measure of Blood," will be released in January. She is a professor of theater at the University of Pittsburgh.