In John Grisham’s newest book, “Sycamore Row,” the author spins another story involving Jake Brigance, a Mississippi lawyer featured in one of Grisham’s previous books, “A Time to Kill.”
Jake is the attorney for the estate of Seth Hubbard, a rich and unpleasant man in Clanton who hated his family and whose family claimed no love for him.
In Seth’s original will, he left all of his money to his two children. In a revised handwritten will, however, he left most of his estate to his black housemaid, Lettie Lang. In fact, except for a small percent for his brother, Ancil, Seth left his family completely out of the will.
Seth hadn’t heard from Ancil in many years, but he noted in the will that they had both had witnessed something that no human should ever have to see. After revising the will, Seth hanged himself from a sycamore tree, choosing to die of his own hand rather than succumb to a slow, painful death from cancer.
The townspeople and relatives wondered whether Seth Hubbard and Lettie were having an affair or if Seth was in a drug-induced haze and didn’t know what he was doing when he revised the will.
People also wondered why he disregarded the lawyer he had used in the past and picked Jake to handle the estate. Jake had never met Seth, but in a letter to Jake that accompanied the new will, Seth said that he knew Jake had a reputation for being honest and that he admired Jake’s courage for taking on a murder case against enormous odds three years earlier and winning.
Jake learns that Seth was wealthier than anyone had imagined. In fact, Seth was worth $22 million. His adult children hire lawyers to challenge the revised will. Lettie’s husband, who is usually drunk and wanders off for days at a time, hires another set of high-profile lawyers to defend the new will, and the fight over Seth’s estate begins.
Lettie eventually fires her attorneys and trusts Jake to carry out the will in the manner that Seth wanted, and Jake hires Lettie’s daughter as a paralegal to help him during the trial.
Jake also hires a detective to find Seth’s brother, Ancil. Ancil has worked hard for years to remain anonymous, working jobs that pay in cash and trying to forget his life in Mississippi. Quite by chance, the detective finds Ancil, and Jake sends a crusty old former law partner, Lucien, to bring Ancil back home. Ancil doesn’t return, but he does provide a videotaped deposition to Lucien that explains why Seth wrote the new will. His testimony arrives barely in time to be admitted as evidence.
Some of Grisham’s books are better than others; this one brings back a likeable character who is a respected lawyer. Jake always seems to be the underdog but loves a good fight because it is the right thing to do. “Sycamore Row” is well worth the read.
John Grisham, a lawyer, has written some two dozen novels, most of them legal thrillers, including “The Pelican Brief,” “The Firm,” and “The Rainmaker.”
Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.