- A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham. Penguin. $29.95.
John Grisham has sold 350,000 copies of his books; the equivalent of more than one per inhabitant of the USA. Reading A Time for Mercy, it is not hard to see why.
Grisham creates well-detailed and immersive stages in which legal dramas take place, introducing moral questions as the stories unfold.
This novel is set in small town Mississippi in the 1990s, and the central question is what will happen to a 16-year-old boy who has killed a man.
The victim regularly abused the boy's mother, sister, and the accused himself. The death penalty is on the cards, and the adolescent is to be tried as an adult.
Grisham portrays the legal system where the need for re-election hangs over the prosecutors and even judges, and the fear of being seen as weak on crime necessitates pushing for the death penalty.
The homicide victim was a police officer, and this shielded him from any action being taken for his acts of domestic violence.
Grisham is very good indeed at portraying the little corruptions that have underpinned the eventual murder.
He also paints a vivid portrait of the small town in Mississippi where legal segregation may have ended, but where African-American and white communities rarely mix. Churches and cemeteries are still for one race or another.
Things have changed to some extent; the elected Sherriff is African-American, but even he feels uncomfortable visiting certain restaurants and businesses.
Attitudes to abortion, adoption, different types of Christianity, the love of firearms, and that strange (to Australian thinking) attachment to the death penalty are all touched on throughout the book.
The criminal case plays out in great detail; the pre-trial discovery, the attempts to move the young defendant away from adult prison, jury selection, the trial itself. Ridiculous financial constraints on the defence make preparing a proper case difficult.
Alongside the major trial, a civil case is also pursued by the lawyer, Jake Brigance, who is the novel's central character.
The progress of this civil matter is influenced by court-appointed Brigance's eventual decision to see the criminal case through to the end.
This sub-plot makes for fascinating reading, as does the moral ambiguity of some of the lawyer's choices.
Jake Brigance has appeared in previous novels, but there is no need to be familiar with these to enjoy A Time for Mercy.
This novel is immersive and addictive, and a worthy addition to Grisham's catalogue of legal fiction.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier