Four dozen novels and works of nonfiction later, John Grisham is still seeking the truth. And what is most satisfying is that the journey has brought us to “A Time for Mercy” (Doubleday), Grisham’s third novel featuring attorney Jake Brigance.
Grisham first introduced the young lawyer in “A Time to Kill” (1989), a novel centered on the defense of a Black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his 10-year-old daughter. That book boasted an initial printing of 5,000 copies and went on to become a best-seller. Many readers consider it to be Grisham’s best.
The attorney returned in “Sycamore Row” (2013) in the story of a client who, among other peculiarities, leaves most of his fortune to his Black housekeeper.
Now, it’s 1990 and five years after the events that took place in “A Time to Kill.” Grisham returns to rural Clanton, Miss., and if there’s any doubt that Jake is yet destined to pursue the truth, consider this speech from Lucien Wilbanks, another famous and enlightened fictional attorney, who is also Jake's mentor: “Being fearless, unafraid to take unpopular cases, fighting like hell for the little people who have no one to protect them. ... You have to reach a level of confidence, Jake, where you walk into a courtroom thoroughly unintimidated by any judge, any prosecutor, any big-firm defense lawyer, and completely oblivious to what people might say about you.”
That’s a lecture Jake had “heard a hundred times,” but it’s apropos in “A Time for Mercy” as he again finds his family the target of violence. This time, the bullseye is drawn for defending Drew Gamble, a 16-year-old accused of murdering a deputy. That the teen is guilty is set up from page 1, but the author provides a credible backstory that brokers sympathy for the violent killing.
Yet Clanton is not a sympathetic town, and Jake once again finds himself searching for the “level of confidence” that could get him killed for defending the seemingly indefensible.
Before Grisham gets to Drew's capital trial — and nearly three-quarters of the book has elapsed by that point — he spends considerable time teasing out shades of gray not only from the apparent black-and-white crime, but the town and its inhabitants. Clanton, Miss., is fully developed and its people are neither all good nor all bad. Like the world we live in today, they are complicated and the result is a nuanced portrait of a rural Southern community common both today and of three decades ago.
Those complications come to the forefront by the time Judge Omar Noose — a name that would have made any 18th century novelist proud — calls the trial to session. The town is certain of Drew’s guilt and the prosecutor is calling for the death penalty, as the law dictates.
Here, Grisham inserts his authorial pen to opine about laws that demand a certain level of justice but make no recourse for mitigating circumstances. Given this, the novelist sets up an ending that could fall tragic or happy, but instead chooses a route he rarely takes. Grisham provides a bittersweet denouement in this story, simultaneously revealing one of his most personal novels to date.
Because of that ending, many readers will leave feeling unsatisfied — a carnal sin for a popular writer — but that’s by design.
At the end of the book, the true story of Drew Gamble has to end in one way. In doing so, Grisham shows again, that if he is anything, he is yet a seeker of the truth.