A Time For Mercy by John Grisham (Doubleday, 2020)
New York Times best selling author, John Grisham has set three novels in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi. Of the town, Grisham reflects, “A lot has been written about Clanton and many of its characters: Jake and Carla, Harry Rex, Lucien, Judge Noose, Judge Atlee, Sheriff Ozzie Walls, Carl Lee and so on. Indeed, I’ve written so much about Ford County that I can’t remember all of it.”
For a reader, being immersed in fictional hamlets, is a delight because we have the opportunity to reacquaint with familiar characters whom we haven’t seen in a while. Learning more about what has happened to the townsfolk since the last book in the series, allows us to engage more deeply and invest in what happens to them in the future.
It is 1990 when the novel opens. Five years have passed since Jake Brigance, a hometown attorney, successfully defended Carl Lee Hailey in A Time to Kill. Hailey, a black man, had shot the white man who had raped Carl’s little girl. Jake’s entire family had been endangered during Carl Lee’s trial. In fact, the KKK had burned down his home while he, his wife, and little girl, Hanna, were in it. It was a terrifying period, with poor financial compensation at the end of the day.
Today Jake and his wife, Carla, are more comfortable than they were in 1985. They have bought an historic, old house in town for $250,000. The law practice is holding its own. However, things take a dark turn when old Judge Omar Noose (called Ichabod behind his back due to his lanky build and long nose) foists another unpopular defendant upon Jake, with the promise to replace Jake as soon as the Judge can find someone else willing to accept the challenge. And Jake is smart enough to realize that the likelihood of being replaced is slim.
Josie Gamble, a young woman with two teenage children, has never had a fair chance at life. Pregnant for the first time at sixteen, finishing high school was not an option, having to raise two babies, two years apart in age. She has terrible luck with men, hooking up with drug dealers, getting sent to jail twice for drug possession, and losing her children to Child Protective Services twice.
When Josie meets Stuart Kofer, a sheriff’s deputy in Clanton, she thinks that her luck has changed. Although Stuart is not a fan of raising kids, he invites Josie, Keira, and Drew to live in his home. As time goes on, Josie learns that Stuart, though a respected lawman in the community with a large family, is an ugly drunk, who has beaten her badly on many occasions, and he is resentful of having her children in “his” home.
One night, after a particularly vicious argument, Stuart, who is blind drunk on moonshine, beats Josie so badly that the children believe that she is dead. In shock, and terrified for their own lives, 16 year old Drew grabs Stuart’s gun, and with one bullet to the brain, ends Stuart’s miserable life.
Thus, Jake is assigned to defend a near catatonic, underdeveloped boy in the hotheaded Mississippi culture, which espouses “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The Kofer family, their friends, and many of the citizens of Clanton believe that no matter how young he is, Drew should die in the gas chamber for his crime.
A Time for Mercy is rich in themes. Questions are raised about the morality of the death penalty, legal abortion, and domestic abuse. The strongest theme in the novel rises from a question that Grisham puts before the reader. Is the law, even though carefully written, always black and white in its clarity? Can there ever be medium ground where justice can be found?
A Time for Mercy is one of those novels that I didn’t want to end, but I couldn’t wait to finish. Grisham is a terrific storyteller, whose prose flows easily and keeps us guessing until the very last page. I will add just one more thought; the way in which the book ends, points at the hope that we have not seen the last of Jake Brigance and Clanton, Mississippi.