A Time to Kill Book Review – Written by John Grisham
At this point, is there anything left to be said or written about John Grisham? With over 250 million copies of his books sold worldwide, eight novels adapted into feature films and a Galaxy British Book Award under his belt, Grisham is one of the most widely celebrated thriller writers of his time. However, it hasn’t always been like that. Back in 1989, a then-unknown Grisham had to send his first novel – aptly named A Time to Kill – to 28 publishers before finally finding success with New York-based Wynwood Press, which published it in a modest first printing of 5,000 copies. Wynwood Press kicked the bucket shortly thereafter, but the book itself eventually sold out and became popular for both its undeniable quality and introducing the genius of John Grisham to the world.
A Summary of the Book
A Time to Kill takes place in the fictional Southern town of Clanton, a setting that should be familiar to most Grisham fans. The story begins with a brutal rape of a 10-year old black girl named Tonya Hailey by two racist rednecks; while the perpetrators are quickly caught, the girl’s distraught father Carl Lee Hailey decides to take justice into his own hands. After murdering both assailants in cold blood, Carl Lee is charged with first-degree murder and imprisoned to await a trial. He quickly decides to put his fate into the hands of his old friend, Jake Brigance, a young white attorney modeled largely after Grisham himself. However, with a resurgence of the local Ku Klux Klan unit hellbent on seeking revenge against Carl Lee, it’s anybody’s guess whether the case will even get to the trial.
Right from the start, it becomes obvious that Grisham won’t be pulling any punches. The very first chapter contains a shocking depiction of a gang-rape and numerous instances of vulgar language, including the infamous N-word. While it’s hard to outright recommend the book to those with weak stomachs, it’s important to note that the violence is never too gratuitous and is always in the service of the story. The novel deals with heavy themes, including but not limited to racial prejudice, gender equality and capital punishment, and this kind of fiery storytelling is pretty much necessary to convey the gravity of the situation.
The book’s biggest strength undoubtedly lies in its cast of characters. The fictional town of Clanton feels like a real place with its own rich history, mostly thanks to the characterization of the people living in it. While it probably would have been easy enough to focus on the relationship between Jake Brigance and Carl Lee, Grisham decides to expand upon the story by introducing at least a couple of new characters in every chapter, most of whom end up being memorable and entertaining enough to help propel the story further forward. Many of the minor characters’ main purpose is to provide some much-needed moments of levity, which is a technique that Grisham would perfect in his later novels. The sheer length of the book allows Grisham to take his time and let his characters explore both sides of each important argument.
Overall, the book flows well and absorbs the reader from the very beginning. The almost palpable suspense, one of the key features of Grisham’s work, is present here throughout. However, as is the case with the majority of the first novels, A Time to Kill has certain narrative problems that clog the story’s pace. As Grisham himself readily admits, the book focuses too a bit too much on the repetitive townsfolk chatter while at the same time neglecting the trial the story is centered around by holding it off until four-fifths of the way in. Still, this is only a minor concern; the book is fast-paced enough that any problems disappear as quickly as they arrive.
In the years that followed its humble beginnings, A Time to Kill slowly found an audience through its 1996 movie adaptation and John Grisham’s imminent rise to relevance. It may not have made much of an impact when it was first published, but make no mistake – this book is pure and unfiltered Grisham, and as such, deserves to be treated with utmost respect. There is a certain kind of passion that a writer injects into his first real book, and A Time to Kill is a wonderful reminder why those works are such a joy to read.