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because I say so
Thursday, 27 March 2014
Leave Well Enough Alone?

From time to time I use the weekly column to answer the age-old question: what does that author read? Never wondered what your favourite author likes to read (even if it isn't me)? Believe me - at every book event at which I have spoken, the question is raised. So as a service - I'm on vacation so I'm feeling especially magnanimous - I'm going to share a review of sorts of what I've been reading. Also, I'm on vacation so reading is a pretty dominant activity these past ten days or so.

I've written before about authors who have influenced and/or inspired me and the usual suspects always arise (authors, not the film, though I enjoyed that immensely as well): Parker, Connelly, Crais, among others in the crime genre.

If you've read Deadly Lessons and (I prefer not throw 'or' in there) Last Dance you know that my protagonist (in general, I believe the term "hero" is contemporaneously overused, but that's a topic for another column*), Winston Patrick, is a former practicing lawyer-turned-teacher. Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that I've been known to wander into the legal genre in my recreational reading. With that in mind, on this most slow-paced and relaxing of vacations, I turned to the latest legal entertainment by multi-million copy selling author John Grisham, entitled Sycamore Row.

Sycamore Row is a sequel to Grisham's first, and arguably one of his best, novels, A Time to Kill, in which we meet newbie lawyer Jake Brigance in Clanton, Mississippi, a backwater small town in semi-rural Ford County (Grisham has a previous collection of short stories with the titular county). It is the late 1980's, important for no real reason to the story except that it seems Grisham doesn't want too much time to have elapsed between the current story and the epic trial at the centre of Brigance's first go round.

And less you miss it, Grisham is not above relishing in the glory of his first major publishing triumph in the same way his protagonist does: the Carl Lee Hailey trial of A Time to Kill is referenced no fewer than 46 times (I counted). Similarly, a number of characters from that first book are back, some for no more reason again but to remind us of triumphs past. Rufus Bailey, for example, the maniacally ego-centric district attorney, played so sneeringly evil by Kevin Spacey in the film adaptation, shows up for a few scenes that serve no purpose beyond having him humiliated by Jake and Judge Atlee, who snubbed him during our previoius literary encounters with him.

In Sycamore Row, Jake is representing the shockingly large estate of a town recluse who, two days before ending his lung-cancer riddled life, pens a will leaving the bulk of his estate to his black housekeeper of three years, specifcally cutting out his own miserable children and grandchildren. Along the way, we spend considerable time trying to determine why this otherwise shrewd businessman would leave the majority of his estate to - gasp! - a black woman. I know, I know. It's 1980's Mississippi and that would be scandalous. But it's a hard sell, especailly given how saintly and okay the protagonists are with race relations by comparison.

I want to like the story - some of his books I confess to liking and even here, some of the more colourful characters are enjoyable. The difficulties lie in Grisham's pacing and meandering through the story: in short - not a lot happens and even at that, some of what happens is entirely superfluous. In one chapter, Grisham repeatedly mentions how boring pre-trial depositions are, mind-numbingly dull, Brigance assures his young - wait for it, black female - protege. He then proceeds to spend an entire chapter detailing the pre-trial depositions. Turns out he wasn't wrong.

The resolution to the story, though maybe not by every detail, is telescoped so far in advance that by the time of the reveal, the reader is pretty clear where we were headed, only the brutality of the details were as yet unknown. In his efforts, I assume, to build suspense, Grisham lets slip so many hints about the history leading to old man Hubbard's late-life will change there is little left about which to be surprised in the climax.

It's clear Grisham retains his passion for the law and stepping back into these most successful of characters must have been a temptation difficult to resist. And it's not an awful book, to be sure. As I say after nearly every Grisham read I've undertaken though, if you're only going to read one Grisham novel, stick with the original.

Next week: travel and its supposed impact on the writer.

*One of these days I will have to go back and take note of all of the items about which I have declared something to be "a topic for another column" and actually write them

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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