Reviewed by Ian Lipke
In a postscript to A Time for Mercy Grisham writes, “The point…is to apologize for any mistakes. I’m just too lazy to go back and read the earlier books” (367). Laziness has not been confined to reading past editions but has crept into later versions of Grisham’s stories. A blatant admission of laziness is a rather nasty slap to the sensitivities of Grisham’s readership. Possibly he doesn’t realise; possibly he doesn’t care.
A Time for Mercy is the latest in a large number of books, how many I’ve been too lazy to check. They make very fine reading if legal procedurals are your inclination. I thoroughly enjoy this genre and Grisham is among the best writers currently engaged in producing them. A caution is to stick with enjoyment as there are issues that a purist would be stretched to accept. More on that later.
The kernel of the story is plain. A drunken husband and father, a rapist of his wife and daughter, is an upright citizen during the day. He is a policeman and considered a hero to the town having killed three drug runners who were fleeing justice elsewhere. Arriving home drunk one night, he beats his wife to within an inch of death, and then sets out to rape his daughter, whereupon his son shoots and kills him. The book now turns into the prosecution and defence of the sixteen-year-old son.
The plot is a favourite of Grisham. It is not a case of same characters, different names, but the style of character varies little from book to book. The pursuit of justice runs along familiar lines. A boy/man facing the full force of the law, the case against him insurmountable, is defended by an attorney who has issues of his own to face. This tale, at least, has a twist at the end (which I find hard to accept).
The location seems always to be a town in Ford County, Mississippi or areas thereabouts. This time around it is Clanton. Bad guys are sentenced after trial to Parchman where some die inside their minds while waiting to be gassed to death. The point is that readers of Grisham could not conceive of this writer’s story being located in New York and/or London. The sameness of situation, the sameness of location, do not detract from the story. Even people who do not know or care where Mississippi is, invariably enjoy a Grisham product. Why?
Intertwined are Grisham’s characters and the author’s sense of humour. There is a judge called the Honourable Omar Noose, an uptight judge who is pleased to negotiate deals with lawyers that are strictly breaches of the Criminal Code. A deputy sheriff bears the name Moss Junior Tatum. A defrocked lawyer drinks himself senseless while making himself a pest at the defence counsel’s office. Jack Brigance reluctantly takes on the chief defendant’s role. With his customary humour, Grisham narrates that Brigance customarily “anchor[ing]ed life as he knew it, parked in front of his office on Washington Street, and, at 6:00 am, six days a week, walked into the Coffee Shop to either hear or create the gossip, and to dine on wheat toast or grits.
But on the seventh day, he rested” (36).
Prominent is a black woman in a clearly defined role. Portia is Brigance’s understudy but intends to attend law school at the next intake. She is one of the few female characters – there are a couple of others – who are not nebulously presented. She is the most interesting of all.
Brigance does not want the task of defending the teenager. He comes to an agreement with the wily old judge that he will accept the task until the defendant is committed but the trial itself will be someone else’s duty. The reader knows, the judge knows, but Brigance does not accept that he’s the man. Welcome to the big time – you have the job for life (the boy’s life – or death). Unfortunately, Brigance’s constant bleating that he’s a ‘fill-in’ for the real defendant becomes irksome. “He kept trying to dismiss it all, because it would be someone else’s problem. Right” (41)?
One of the more annoying writing habits that Grisham displays is his avoidance of ‘showing’. Long passages are told to us. Representative is the second half of page 254 which contains information that the writer could have supplied in a more creative way. (Too lazy to adapt a trusted formula, I guess!) Supplying trivial details, redundancies, information we did not need to know, and on page 247, for instance, padding.
Yet the magic of Grisham is such that readers, including myself, chase everything he writes. Wherein lies his secret?
By John Grisham
Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette UK
$32.99; 478 pp