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A Time To Kill
(John Grisham)

When John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill, he was still an unknown quantity. In fact, several publishing houses had rejected his manuscript and when the book was finally accepted for publication, a mere 5000 copies were released. However, A Time to Kill has turned out to be one of Grisham's most popular works ever, and though officially categorized as a legal thriller, has all the ingredients of a gripping human drama, which has contributed to a successful film adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey.

The action is set in the fictional town of Clanton in Ford County, Mississppi, the heart of the USA's Deep South. Trouble erupts in this African American-majority area when a 10-year-old African-American girl, Tonya Hailey, is raped and tortured almost to death by two young white men, both of whom hold prior police records for drug-related offences. Arrested and charged with the latest crime, the two men appear in court for preliminary hearings, and the case is already drawing the interest of the local community, including a smart young attorney called Jake Brigance, who has a young daughter himself. Unknown to everyone, however, Tonya's father Carl Lee, a Vietnam veteran, is plotting revenge of his own. As the two offenders leave the courthouse one morning, Carl Lee accosts and shoots them dead on the courthouse steps, severely injuring a sheriff's deputy in the process.

Carl Lee's arrest and trial splits Clanton right down the center, as Jake Brigance finds himself defending Carl Lee, whose brother Lester he had got off the hook in a case of murder a few years earlier. Aiding Jake and getting oh-so-slightly romantically involved with him is a bright young law student from New York, Ellen Roark. Things rapidly turn ugly when the Ku Klux Klan enter the scene, and the familiar burning crosses and triangular white hats make an appearance as Ellen and Jake's secretary Ethel are the victims of KKK attacks and Jake's own wife and daughter are threatened.

As the entire nation zeroes in on Clanton, it is evident that more than a Black-White conflict is at stake. The jury need to decide whether a man whose daughter has been raped and maimed to the extent that she can never have children of her own can nevertheless take the law into his own hands. Since Jake has nothing to go on except a defense of temporary insanity, it is pretty much down to the jury to decide for or against Carl Lee based on psychiatric evidence, and on such crucial testimonies as that of Dwayne Looney, the injured sheriff's deputy.

Thrown into the plot are such interesting characters as Jake's mentor Lucien Wilbanks, Jake's best friend Harry Rex, and the aggressive and ambitious D.A., Rufus Buckley. As the case draws to a close, Grisham's expertise at handling tense courtroom situations and grave moral questions becomes evident. The deaths of the two rapists and Carl Lee's own potential death sentence act as fine counterbalances, as does the comparison of Jake's relationship with his daughter Hannah with that between Carl Lee and Tonya. In the end, the heart may be seen to win over the head, but the conclusion is inescapable.

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