Deep in the night, a woman waits in fear for her boyfriend to come home. Her two teenage children cower in a locked bedroom. When the man appears, raging drunk, he beats the woman, then passes out. Her children find her bloodied and unresponsive.
A gunshot rings out.
That chilling chapter kick-starts the 35th novel by John Grisham, A Time for Mercy. It’s a fine example of his well-honed skill at hooking readers right into a story — a skill that has helped sell more than 300 million copies of his books worldwide.
Most of his bestselling novels are gripping legal thrillers, centered on courtroom drama and even more on the machinations that go on behind what jurors and observers see in court. Grisham was a lawyer himself before he found success as a writer, and his experiences bring deep authenticity to his books.
His first novel, A Time to Kill, published in 1988 and made into a hit movie in 1996, grew directly out of his practice of law in a small town in Mississippi. Its lawyer hero, Jake Brigance, took on a seemingly unwinnable case boiling with issues of race that split the fictional small town of Clanton, Miss., and nearly cost him his life.
Grisham wrote Sycamore Row, a sequel to A Time to Kill, in 2013, and he’s brought Jake back for a third act in A Time for Mercy.
This book is set in 1990, just five years after the events of A Time to Kill, and Jake is still hustling for cases in Clanton. His highest hopes for a solid payday rest on a lawsuit he’s pursuing involving a collision between a car and a train that left a family of four dead. Jake is suing on behalf of the infant daughter who wasn’t in the car that night; his witnesses say the crossing signals weren’t working.
Then his old friend and mentor Judge Omar Noose (whose name sounds like he wandered out of a Dickens novel) hands him another of those apparently unwinnable, and probably utterly unprofitable, cases.
That gunshot in the night killed Stuart Kofer, a county sheriff’s deputy. The 16-year-old son of Kofer’s girlfriend is charged with capital murder.
Drew Gamble shot Kofer, with the deputy’s own gun. There’s no question about that; Drew has admitted it, first to his 14-year-old sister, Kiera, as she sat on the kitchen floor cradling their mother, then to the police when they arrived in response to the kids' 911 call.
The question is why. Drew and Kiera say that they thought their mother, Josie, was dead. Kofer had harmed them before, and they feared for their own lives. The house was far from town, with no help nearby.
Josie, as it turns out, is alive, although grievously injured. With Kofer dead and her mother hospitalized, Kiera is homeless. The Gamble family has struggled for years with poverty and Josie’s drug abuse, and there are no relatives to take in Keira. Kofer’s family is so furious over his death that they burn all the Gambles' possessions and forbid them to come back to the house.
And Drew is in a jail cell. In Mississippi in 1990, a 16-year-old can be tried as an adult. And, thanks to a recent change in law, the murder of a law enforcement officer, whether on duty or not, is a capital crime. Drew could go to Death Row.
Jake does not want to be Drew’s attorney. He knows all too well that the case will arouse intense emotions, and his business depends on the regard of his community — as does the happiness of his no-nonsense wife, Carla, and their young daughter, Hanna. But Noose is implacable. No other local lawyer has argued a capital case; Jake has the job, like it or not.
The blue line forms up immediately. The town’s police see Stu Kofer as one of their own and make clear to Jake that they expect to see his killer get the death penalty. That opinion holds even as it comes out that many of Kofer’s friends on the force knew he was a violent drunk whose drinking was escalating. Some of them had answered domestic violence calls to his home, only to have Josie decline to press charges. That’s not unusual in such situations; what is suspicious is that all records of those calls have disappeared.
The sheriff, Ozzie Wall, is furious to find he’s been kept out of the loop on Kofer’s deterioration. He feels some sympathy for Drew, but as the county’s first Black sheriff, he walks a tightrope every day. It takes all Jake’s persuasive and legal skills just to get Drew examined by psychiatrists — which starts up angry rumors that Jake will present an insanity defense.
As Jake deals with the spiraling complications of Drew’s case and tries to help Josie and Kiera, he’s also dealing with troubles of his own, especially an alarming amount of debt. Much of it is litigation loans taken out in pursuit of that railroad case; when it stalls, Jake is on the hook for much more money than he has. The costs of Drew’s defense are rising as well, and the hard limit on what the state will pay an appointed defense attorney is a grand total of $1,000. Jake could use some mercy himself.
A Time to Kill and Sycamore Row both revolved around racial issues. In A Time for Mercy, Grisham doesn’t center racism; the Gambles and Kofers are white. In a small Southern town, though, racism is in the air people breathe. Ozzie might be the county’s well-regarded sheriff, but most of daily life, from Saturday barbecues to cemeteries, is strictly segregated.
But not everyone in Clanton is hateful, and Grisham also shows readers the kind side of the small town. Josie and Kiera are taken in wholeheartedly by the members of a tiny country church, who stretch their own slim resources to give mother and daughter a place to stay.
As always in Grisham’s novels, the intricacies of legal strategy are laid out clearly, the good, the bad and the ugly. On the job as well as in his personal life, Jake is an endearing protagonist because he’s a plainly imperfect one. He makes mistakes, sometimes major ones; he cuts corners and keeps secrets and sometimes skates out to the edge of ethics.
But he learns from all of it, and when it comes down to the crunch, he does the right thing.
A Time for Mercy
By John Grisham
Doubleday, 480 pages, $29.95
Times Festival of Reading
John Grisham will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Grisham, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to firstname.lastname@example.org.