Top positive review
The rights and wrongs of a murder
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 13 October 2020
John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, remains one of his best. That was about a man who, in 1985, killed someone but may have been justified in doing so. A Time for Mercy is about, er, a man who, in 1990, killed someone but may have been justified in doing so. Thankfully, that's pretty much where the similarities end, but a story that invites the reader to make up his or her mind whether it was a righteous kill or not is always going to keep you turning the pages even after the story has ended.
It also invites the reader to wonder if the victim of the murder deserves such a retributory punishment for his wrong-doing, and whether his killer, likewise, deserves the ultimate judicial punishment for his wrong-doing.
Of course, cynics will argue that Grisham is capitalising on the civil unrest prevailing in America in 2020 but you can't really blame him for feeding off it because it's a subject close to many hearts and minds just now. Millions of people consider US police officers to be above the law if and when they kill, although the difference in this story is that the (white) police officer is off-duty when the horrifying assault takes place.
A Time for Mercy explores the ways in which acts of violence committed by or against law enforcement officers can complicate the pursuit of justice.
Jake Brigance is back, thereby making this a second sequel I suppose (after Sycamore Row in 2013), and he is appointed to represent a 16-year-old boy with regard to the murder of his mother’s boyfriend - who also happens to be a police officer. Just as in A Time to Kill, this isn't about 'who did it' because everybody knows who the killer is. Once again the reader and all of the story's characters face the ethical challenge over whether the killing was justified or not. Was it self defence? That's just one of the counter-arguments. The young killer, his 14-year-old sister and his mother had lived in fear of the deceased policeman, who had a drink problem and would often physically and violently abuse them.
Opinion amongst the local community in Clanton, Mississippi, is weighted against Jake. Those with an affiliation to law enforcement believe the teenager should not only be tried in court as an adult, but if he's found guilty, he should be executed. Quite a few ordinary citizens feel the same. Jake becomes very unpopular for defending a cop-killer, and while this is 1990 and long before the era of social media, there's still a battle to be fought against those who decide that someone is guilty even before there's a trial.
One of the intriguing things about this story - and the author is aware enough to mention it in the dialogue halfway through - is that there can be no satisfactory outcome. It's a murder, and the killer is known. There will be a trial, and the jury will decide 'guilty' or 'not guilty'. But unlike the first Grisham novel (in which just about everyone reading it hoped the killer would be found not guilty), in this case it's not quite as simple. Any verdict could be wrong, even if you consider the possibilities in advance. So Grisham is creating a considerable problem for himself here, and it's a testament to his skills as a story-teller that he is able to deliver a conundrum that feels very real (for all I know, this might be based on real-life events) and which seems impossible to resolve - yet resolve it he does.
Quite apart from this being a very good courtroom thriller with sharp dialogue and with engaging characters who you will either love or hate, at the heart of it all is the moral complexity that is generated by a murder of a local man who some will feel had it coming to him while others will feel lost his life unjustly.
With the exception of a few procedural elements this is never a boring read and is bound to pull on the emotions one way or another. I've read several Grisham novels over the past 20-odd years and while this may be a bit 'familiar' in places (in its style and structure), it's still a fresh new read and compares well with most of this author's best work.
* Edit/Update *
It's hard to ignore an episode of 'HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER' - Series 1, Ep 5 in fact - which was broadcast at least 5 years before this book by John Grisham was published. In that episode, called "We're Not Friends", the storyline has some rather uncomfortable similarities with this book.
To quote from the description on IMDB: "Annalise's latest client is teenager Ryan Remini who has been accused of killing his father, a policeman who was also a drunk and abusive to his mother Sharon. Ryan doesn't deny killing him and is in fact quite happy that he did it given the highly toxic home life he was forced to endure. Annalise realises that the only way they will win is to appeal to the jury's emotions and so jury selection becomes the key factor to success."
To be honest, I can't help wondering if Grisham watched that episode back in 2014 or thereabouts and thought "Hmm, that's an interesting idea. I could write a book about that".
Maybe it's nothing more than a coincidence - but the similarities are strong, it has to be said. Even the outcome of the TV drama is not very different from that of the novel. It would be disappointing if John Grisham plagiarised the work of Tracy A. Bellomo who wrote (or co-wrote) the stories for the entire 15 episodes of Series 1 of How to Get Away With Murder.