19 August 2013

"A Time To Kill" by John Grisham {Book Review}

The Book

The book A Time To Kill was written by John Grisham in 1987. On June 1988, Wynwood Press bought the book and printed 5000 copies, which was first distributed in the United States. Moreover, the success of Grisham’s other novels: “The Pelican Brief” and “The Client” paved way for “A Time To Kill” to be once again renewed with its previous and new readers. Doubleday republished the latter in hardcover and by Bantam Dell in paperback, which eventually became a bestseller.

photo courtesy
The Author

John Grisham, the author of the book being reviewed was born on 08 February 1955 in Jonesboro, Arkansas and grew up and worked in Mississippi. He graduated from law school in Ole Miss in the year 1981 and consequently went on practice in Southaven, specializing in criminal defense and personal injury litigation. His inspiration to write this novel was drawn from the true story he overheard about a testimony of a twelve-year old rape victim. After Wynwood Press bought his book, this became the start of his writing career.[1]

The Excerpt

            The story of the book revolves in the main characters: Tonya Hailey, Carl Lee Hailey, Jake Briggance, Ellen Roark and Fred Cobb. The story’s setting was in Clanton, Ford County, Mississippi wherein Tonya, a ten year old black girl was raped, beaten and was later on dumped in a foggy creek near Lake Chatulla by two red necks: Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. Through their own mouths, the two felons were caught as they told a story about what they committed while having a drink at Hueys, a bar near Lake Chatulla. Ozzie Walls, Sheriff of Clanton and the only black Sherriff in Mississippi later issued warrants of arrest to the two culprits, who were then detained.

            Carl Lee, Tonya’s father, upon learning what happened to his child went back home and attended to the needs of his daughter. Meanwhile, Carl Lee overheard that a similar incident transpired from a nearby town, where the offender was acquitted. Carl Lee knew that same situation might happen to his daughter. So with the help of his brother Lester and his Vietnam War buddy, Cat Bruster, he planned well how to bring justice into his own hands and kill his daughter’s rapists. He was able to sneak out the courthouse and hide inside the janitorial supplies locker prior the preliminary hearing ensues. Upon being sure that Tonya’s rapists are already proceeding outside the courtroom, Carl Lee suddenly came out with his M-16 and opened fire. Cobb and Willard were dead on the spot while the bullets also caught Deputy Looney, escort of the latter. With that, Carl Lee became phenomenal, being the suspect of a capital murder case and for being a father who killed his daughter’s rapists.

            Meanwhile, Jake Briggance, an Ole Miss 1978 law school graduate, one of the 14 street lawyers in Clanton; the predecessor of Lucien Wilbanks[2]; and has the finest law office became the legal council of Carl Lee. It must be noted that prior the conduct of the crime, Carl Lee has already given Jake a hint on what he was thinking. Jake is a white, yet he takes sympathy and makes friends with the blacks. Likewise, he is known to be liberal. He plays a very sensitive part in the story, wherein all the pressures on defending Carl Lee and saving him from the gas chamber was all put on his shoulders.

            Ellen Roark on the other hand is a Boston College summa cum laude graduate and a law student who became Jake’s assistant during Carl Lee’s trial. She was feisty and a very ingenious anti-death sentence advocate, which inspired her to apply at Jake’s law office upon learning the peculiar case of Carl Lee Hailey. In the story, she became the main researcher of Jake and worked for the latter pro bono.

            Moreover, Fred Cobb the brother of late Billy Ray Cobb, joined the infamous Ku Klux Klan[3] and became the leader of the KKK Ford County Klavern in order for him to avenge the death of his brother and uphold the “supremacy of the white race”. In the story, all people who gives any assistance to Carl Lee and his family was subjected to harassment: burning of crosses in front of Jake’s house and prospective jurors for Carl Lee’s trial, planting of bomb at Jake’s front yard, burning of Jake’s house, beating the husband of Esther[4], beating Ellen and killing of Mickey Mouse[5].

            As the reviewers perceive it, “A Time To Kill” is a legal thriller and may also be treated as a philosophical book that depicts the society’s status in Mississippi during the late 1970s wherein southerners versus northerners tradition, cultural issues, racism, feminism, politics and civil rights advocacy were at its peak. Moreover, a touch of the topic parenting was also noted as well as the justice system that was prevailing during that time. A question of “Does the ends justify the means?” was eminent in the story; leaving the readers think, would you also do kill if it was your child who was abused?



Tonya Hailey – a character that is 3D in form, at the start of the story, it all gyrated how this little innocent black girl was molested and beaten. For the first chapters, Tonya became the center of the novel. On the other hand, every chapter unleashed new issues that as the story progresses; it led to the reviewers’ realization that it was not Tonya that was at the center of the novel. Instead, the author fashioned the character of Tonya become the igniter or main ingredient for the society to tackle several issues that bombard human understanding.

Carl Lee Hailey – Carl Lee’s character was 3D in form. The author emphasized parenting and family ties issue with Carl Lee’s character and depicted him as all natural and human, wherein any father who has a child who experiences the same struggle as Tonya had, will also do the same. The character of Carl Lee also unbridled several issues and revealed a societal concern present during that time: “will a black father and white father have an equal chances with the jury?[6]

Jake Briggance – the reviewers pinpointed that it is the character of Jake Briggance that the author places himself. Like Jake, it may be noted that John Grisham is also a lawyer practicing criminal defense prior becoming a renowned author. Looking at it, though at the start of the story it was the Haileys who were at the center, Jake Briggance eventually became the protagonist covering almost 70 percent of the subsequent chapters and leaving the rape and shooting incidents as supporting facts on the course of the story.
Moreover, Jake’s character was 3D in form who was seen as an unorthodox white and lawyer. It was shown that though Jake’s zeal to defend Carl Lee was there, his mind of using the case to become popular in that side of the United States must not be discounted. Nevertheless, it is with Jake Briggance where John Grisham emphasized that the existing situation in Clanton or in Mississippi per se during the 1970s did and do not compliment with the changing time. It was also with Jake’s character that supports the issues on cultural differences, racism, gender equality and politics.

Ellen Roark – Through Ellen, the author portrayed that being a woman is not deterrence on becoming a good lawyer and that the picture of a woman being weak actually became her strength. With Ellen, the issue of feminism specifically in court proceedings was accentuated.

Fred Cobb – Meanwhile, the character of Fred Cobb depicted the perfect definition of racist and sexist. It is with him that the author placed the antagonist role, which became very methodical in presenting another antagonistic body that was actually present in some parts of the United States during the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan. Aside from the racism and feminism issues presented by Fred, a family tie was also portrayed, wherein no matter how crooked your siblings lived; Bill Ray was still his brother. Indeed, just like Carl Lee, Fred depicted that “blood is thicker than water.” At some point, he was just also avenging what happened to his brother though he was blinded that Bill Ray did not rape Tonya for the reason that the latter did not admit guilt about the crime.


            Grisham made it perfect for the reviewers to really visualize the critical locations in the story: from a nearby forest area to foggy creek to a small ravine line with kudzu in Lake Chatulla (site where Tonya was dumped after being raped); from janitorial locker to the courtroom’s backdoor stairs (where Bill Ray and Willard were shot); from Jake’s Office/Wilbanks’ Law Office to Lucien Bank’s beach house; from Jake’s prominent house to Carl Lee’s own dwelling and the whole of Clanton, Ford County, Mississippi. It was like Clanton, Ford County Mississippi itself was also a “character” in the novel and not just a mere setting.

            In our discernment, Grisham chose Mississippi as the setting of the story since being a resident of said state, he did see how that same place “grew” with regard to accepting the “blacks” and executing impartial civil rights in the society. Likewise, it may be noted that Mississippi plays a vital part in the history of US civil rights breakthroughs and the setting depicted in the novel was on the 1970s, the exact period when racism (white as superior race), cultural differences and feminism were at its peak.

            With this, it may be then be appreciated that the scenic quality delivered by the author was timely perfect and is deeply close to the situation present during the time the said novel was written, released and distributed.


            As stated in the thesis, “A Time To Kill” addressed:
Racism: That the jury must not magistrate based on the color of the skin but on the grounds, evidences and justifying/mitigating circumstances why a person commits a crime;
Parenting: That a father has the responsibility of defending his children;
Politics: That organizational politics is already part of the system (from Jake, gaining a great publicity on his side being the legal council of the most phenomenal case, which was even tagged as the “trial a lawyers’ dream”; prosecutor’s side, gaining his own share of publicity as well; church pastors/reverends using Carl Lee’s situation to gain money; and again, racial injustice); and,
Feminism: Gender prejudices specifically in the courtroom wherein in the 1970s, limited number of women take a stand in Mississippi as legal councils.

The purpose why this book was written was quite explicit, which maybe connected to the fact that this was the very first book written by John Grisham and because the abovementioned concerns were also the same issues that kept inundating his thoughts as a lawyer and citizen/resident of Mississippi/USA.


With respect to the reviewers’ perception, being parents ourselves, we saw that one of the strengths of the novel was its emphasis on family relations; the blood is thicker than water idea. Second is the “compassion” of the law; that there is justice after all, given the fact that at the end of the day, Carl Lee was declared a free man. Third and the most significant of all, was the ability of the writer to interconnect the prevalent issues encircling feminism, racism and multiculturalism.

On the other hand, the cited weakness of this novel was on the part where it was unveiled how Jake Briggance won the case. The reviewers were able to compare the book with the movie and we saw that the “A Time To Kill” movie adaptation’s ending was more endearing because it was the lawyer Jake Briggance who won the case and not any other jury, which was depicted in the book. Though it is true enough that in Mississippi/US, the verdict lies on the jury, it would have been appealing if it were Jake Briggance’s closing argument that made the jury say “not guilty.”

John Grisham himself described his writing style as free flowing rather than adhering to the strict literally rules in novel writing. Nevertheless, it did added to the allure of the novel and as the author says in his note of the 2005 re-issue of the novel, “This one came from the heart. It’s a first novel, and at times it rambles, but I wouldn’t change a word if given the chance”.

The reviewers can in one piece say that the book was well written, understandable and presented in a manner that would easily appeal to the readers. The book certainly achieved its purpose wherein the reviewers became more interested with the different injustices and racism issues not only in the US but also specifically in the Asian countries during the 1970s and up to present. It was able to bring about the recurring issue, which is not only rampant in the US but is a worldwide phenomenon -to the mainstream of our societal psyche and thus knowingly or not may have shaped new policies and laws on Child Protection, Gender Equality and Anti Discrimination policies.

The book gave us a reflection of the collective psyche of the people, which condones and tolerates retribution to a wrong doing depending on who was involved and in what underlying circumstances. Furthermore, it is deemed that the book did reach wide readership, which is evident by the several edition released by different publishers since 1989 to include its movie adaptation. Also, as parents, we feel for Carl Lee. Mixed emotions immersed from the first chapter up to the last page.

This book may be recommended as a good reading to senior highschool (Literature) up to professional level. This may serve as an early preparation for the students to explore and have an early understanding of the prevailing societal concerns and justice system. 

Note: This book review was the same book review my partner and I submitted to our instructor. 

[1] http://www.jgrisham.com/bio/
[2] Former boss of Jake Briggance who was disbarred in 1979 and eventually became his landlord.
[3] Ku Klux Klan is nformally known as the Klan or the "Hooded Order", is the name of three distinct past and present far-right organizations in the United States, which have advocated extremist reactionary currents such as white supremacy, white nationalism, and anti-immigration, historically expressed through terrorism. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan)
[4] Jake Briggance’s secretary who has been working at the Wilbanks Law Office long before he became Lucien Wilbank’s associate.
[5] Mickey Mouse became the informant of Ozzie Walls in connection with the KKK’s plans.
[6]Reverend Street’s statement in the novel.