Although Eastern European whodun-why-where-and-what thrillers have sliced into the paperback market, there are the great American survivors: Dan Brown, Tom Clancy and last but not the very least, John Grisham, the maestro of courtroom fiction.
For some prejudiced reason, though, their page-grabbers have been associated — in this blinkered mind at least — with airport lounge book kiosks and long-haul airflights.
Want a travelling companion? Pick up a chunky brisk-seller, never mind if the cover designs range from the bland to the blander.
You can’t go wrong. The absorbing, albeit predictable plots about skulduggery in assorted corridors of power are like those airflight meals in business class. A smidgen of thought has been accorded to the menu by a chef, the cutlery is cool. As for the chablis on board, it may not be vintage but what the hell, it’s eminently quaffable.
Still, despite their incalculable utility in keeping the reader satiated, a Grisham novel wouldn’t be approved by a picky bibliophile. Class, authenticity and a seriousness of purpose and language construction are associated essentially with Britain’s John le Carre, especially his earlier Spy who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. Even espionage bosses have approved them as closest to the real thing.
John Grisham, the 58-year-old lawyer-politician-cum-prolific-author doesn’t wander into the dark soulful interiors of Carre. Instead, his signature is best legible in courtroom showdowns which seek justice for the underprivileged. Besides the all-time classic, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, no other book on the legal intricacies can rival his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989), which was adapted seven years later into a jaw-punching movie featuring the then-little-known Matthew McConaughey and the Gravity-defying Sandra Bullock.
Now the book’s sequel, the 550-pager 'Sycamore Row', has arrived belatedly. And despite the reiteration of theme — a white lawyer battling for the rights of a black have-not — it’s an attention grabber, with reservations.
Comparisons are odious and all that, but the follow-up does lack the immediacy and high-wire tension of the original: A Time to Kill hinged on a black man who kills the two rednecks guilty of raping his daughter. This time around, the issue is an eccentric timber tycoon’s multi-million-dollar legacy left to a black housemaid alliteratively named Lettie Lang. So the upright lawyer Jake Brigance is back to play for high stakes in Sycamore Row — the sycamore alludes to the tree on which the tycoon hung himself. Yet money isn’t a strong branch to hang a story from. A father who picked up a gun and shot the rapists in A Time to Kill had transmitted his outrage right away. Here you’re not sure whether a pot of money is such a big deal.
If you’re willing to settle for less, fine. The opposition party in the course of justice is formidable enough. Count among them the tycoon’s testy son and a quasi-neurotic daughter deprived of their inheritance, foxy lawyers by the carload (one drives a Rolls Royce), and woe be, there’s the housemaid’s abusive, drunken, womanising husband. Agony begins at home, presumably.
The hero of 'Sycamore Row' doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Obviously an alter-ego of the author, Jake is endowed with movie star good lucks, a wife who’s been through the thickest and thinnest with him, a mandatory coo-coo-cooing child, the works! Jake’s also in need of cash, runs a dusty office with a dustier secretary and temptations be damned. He continues to do the right thing. Clearly, a hero with shades of grey is beyond Grisham’s imagination in Sycamore Row. Ensues, then, a conflict between the virtuous and the vicious, the narrative being lean on story material but plump on courtroom dynamics.
That the Lettie Lang case is located circa 1988 does take some time getting used to. Racism is still rampant, cigarette smoking doesn’t require cordoned zones, caffeinated coffee and Jack Daniel’s are guzzled by the gallons, and ladies wear stilleto heels.
Throughout, Grisham goes heavy on descriptions of ambience and of character quirks, but you don’t really take a quotable quote or even a punchline home. If Grisham discloses any writing chutzpah, it’s in his single-minded determination to propel the plot forward.
A hair-pin bend is mandatory, naturally, which keeps you hooked right till the end. One can avoid it, perhaps. What if there’s a film version with Matthew McConaughey? You’d go in knowing the fate of Lettie Lang, wouldn’t you? You’d go in, knowing if Jake Brigance gets away triumphant or not.
Be that as it may, a book warrants completion. Whatever your silly or rational reason, you do want to get to the last word. And then you hope there’s a new John Grisham the next time you’re on a long-haul flight, and want to curl up with a blanket, a book and a quaffable chablis.
Khalid Mohamed is a journalist, film critic and film director...