by John Grisham. Bantam Dell, New York, New York. 515pp. Paper: $13.00. ISBN: 9780385338608.

Reviewed by Laura J. Hatcher, Department of Political Science and Women’s Studies Program, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Email: hatcher [at] siu.edu.


A TIME TO KILL, originally published in 1989, was John Grisham’s first novel. Now, re-released several times, it has also become a bestseller like many of his other novels. But it is not like his other novels. While there are hints in it of the formula that would produce for Grisham one bestseller after the other in the years to follow, this novel has a different feel to it than his others. It poses ethical dilemmas embedded in a social critique that, while perhaps not on a par with a great piece of literature, is thought provoking. In a manner that is both disturbing and intriguing, there is a vindication of vigilantism and revenge killing that drives the plot and, under the right circumstances, could also provide fodder for some very interesting classroom discussions.

For those who have seen the movie based upon the novel but have never read the book, it will provide some surprises. While the most basic outline of the story was retained by the filmmakers, most of the detail and many of the elements driving the novel’s plot are strikingly different. For those interested in thinking about popular culture and the way films and novels portray the law, here is an opportunity to discuss how cultural representations may vary by genre and structure. In part because this is a novel that has a movie connected to it that is often seen on cable television and was a blockbuster hit in the theaters, I’ve included some very basic discussion of the book in contrast to the movie below. If you do use the novel in an undergraduate class, given the prevalence of the movie on cable television, some students may even be tempted to watch it rather than read the book.

The novel, like the movie, opens with a very brutal rape scene. Two white men (“rednecks”, we’re told in the novel) brutalize a little girl named Tonya. It is clear in both the movie and the novel that one reason they picked her was that she is African American. The film shots in the movie sexualize the little girl in unsettling ways, showing her legs, and attending to the way she walks down the road. The book begins with the rape in progress, and presents her already being brutalized. The rapists’ treatment of her leaves us with the clear understanding that they do not view black children as human children. Their racism and sexism comes through in nearly every line of the dialogue.

Tonya calls out for her father, imagines that he’ll come and save her. The role of father as protector is highlighted in the narrative from the beginning. Indeed, one could argue that A TIME TO KILL is a novel about daughters and fathers’ obligations to them to a large degree. After she is found, Carl Lee Hailey, her father, comes home to find the police at the house awaiting the ambulance after finding Tonya left in a ditch, bloody, [*322] beaten, and ravaged nearly to death. Her mother weeps while her father feels immediate guilt for having been slow to come home when his wife called him, but more importantly because he had not protected his little girl from this brutality.

Just as the novel is unflinching in dealing with the details of the rape, Grisham lays out Carl Lee’s carefully made plans to murder the rapists. It is coldly calculated. In Hollywood’s adaptation, Carl Lee plans the murder, but Hollywood did not have him drive all the way to Memphis to buy an M-16 from a fellow Vietnam Vet and ask his brother for help because of his insider’s knowledge of the jail and courthouse. Nor does his brother draw the floor plans of both buildings so that Carl Lee will know where to hide and the best location for the shooting. The planning takes days, not hours. Yet these elements are important features of the book. Not only is it clear in the novel that a few days of planning and thinking go into Carl Lee’s moment of revenge, his right to murder the two men who raped his daughter is discussed within his family (among the males). Moreover, several members of the community – including the sheriff, and the man who will be his lawyer at trial – explicitly state they understand and would likely have done something similar given the circumstances.

It’s noteworthy that most members of the community who play a major role in the novel are male, and it’s a male society that not only condones Carl Lee’s actions, but at times seems to be complicit with them. The women, on the other hand, are left out of this calculation, and do not, in fact, play much of a role in any decision-making throughout the novel until the entrance of Ellen Roark, a law student and anti-death penalty activist, who volunteers to work for the defense on the case for free. But Ellen does not enter the scene until the last third of the novel, and even then she’s a supporting character. Meanwhile, the women are even less important than the law student. Carl Lee’s wife remains supportive of her husband after the murder, and it is not clear that she fully understands what he is planning before the actual act. Nor does her opinion seem to matter to Carl Lee, his brother Lester, or any other member of the family or community. The beautiful young wife of Jake Brigance, his attorney, is the only character who gives voice to the idea that perhaps – just perhaps – murdering the rapists is also wrong (not simply illegal – a fact that many of the characters point out because the law will require certain duties of them despite the justice of the act). Ultimately, however, her husband sends Carla and their daughter back to her own father to be protected when the Ku Klux Klan attempt to bomb her home.

The plans for the revenge murder are made with the legal institutions of Mississippi looming in the background – literally so, as the murder takes place on the steps of the courthouse. Carl Lee is well aware there will be a trial and that he will need a lawyer. The shadows of the law are strong enough that the need for a lawyer and consideration of what will happen during a trial are elements of Carl Lee’s plans, though it becomes obvious as the novel progresses that he did not fully consider the financial implications of a death penalty case for either his trial or his family’s livelihood. Fortunately, there is a lawyer at hand, [*323] one who not only is a “local boy” but also defended Carl Lee’s brother in a murder trial, and won the case.

Indeed, in one of the most intriguing scenes in the novel Carl Lee tells this lawyer, Jake Brigance, what he plans to do and asks Jake to represent him in the trial that will follow. Jake does wonder whether he should tell the sheriff about the possible murder of the two suspects. Jake ponders his interest in the outcome of Carl Lee’s actions. In the movie Jake does not tell the sheriff, something which he finds deeply troubling later; but in the novel, Jake decides the right thing to do is to discuss the situation with the sheriff. In a private conversation, he and the sheriff agree that there would be justice if Carl Lee murders the two rapists, but that it would still be illegal. The sheriff says he is not surprised Carl Lee is considering it, because had it been his own daughter, he is not sure what he’d do. The sheriff tells Jake not to worry because he has already taken the usual precautions. Again, intriguingly, even though he knows Carl Lee is planning murder, he only uses precautions that are “usually” in place – nothing more, nothing less.

In fact, two important themes emerge early in the novel and are the mechanisms for developing most of the story: first, that fathers have a duty to kill men who violate their daughters in such a heinous fashion; and second, this African American father, unlike a white father, will end up going to jail because he is black and the rapists were white. A white father would be understood to be doing what is right, and acting to revenge his little girl. Fathers and daughters figure prominently throughout the novel, and to some extent the justice that the novel portrays is one of patriarchal families and less about liberal legal institutions. The law does not protect enough – it does not do enough, says this novel, to keep our women safe. Instead, men have a right – one might even think perhaps Grisham is suggesting it’s a natural right – to protect their families, and especially the most vulnerable members of their families – their little girls.

Jake needs to give the jury an option for letting Carl Lee go free, and so he prepares an insanity defense. Intriguingly, Grisham’s description of Carl Lee makes it very difficult for the reader to see how Carl Lee might be considered insane in the legal sense, and the strong suggestion in the novel is that the insanity defense is mostly used to get guilty defendants off. There is no discussion of jury nullification anywhere to be found. Instead, it’s a matter of providing the jurors with an “out”, so that they do not feel they have to apply the death penalty in a case where homicide can be justified. There’s something slightly insane about these discussions themselves within the novel. The psychiatrist used by Brigance argues to the defense lawyers that their client does not seem insane, that in the only two other trials in which he served as a specialist, those defendants also were not insane. “They are where they should be,” he says. Yet, he agrees (because he’s a drunk, and he needs money to keep drinking) that he can serve as a witness for the defense in Carl Lee’s case. A defense is needed, and this is the one most likely to get Carl Lee off, but no one thinks he was insane. In fact, nearly everyone (including the guards at the state hospital where the prosecution does their assessment) believes he did [*324] the right thing in murdering these two individuals.

It’s a father’s right, we hear again and again, to murder men who hurt their daughters. The legal system has to run its course, but it must also recognize that Carl Lee is a father who has done the right thing by his child. That this father did not rush home when his wife called him (because he thinks she’s often hysterical, the narrator tells us), and feels enormous guilt because he was unable to protect his daughter in the first place, is not part of the various discussions of insanity in the novel. He was, it could be argued, reacting in a visceral and reactionary way when he murdered these two individuals because he had not acted previously to protect his daughter. And if he has a natural right to protect her, then he also has a duty to do so before harm can occur. When that duty is breached, then, one might argue, he is required to act. But required by whom? How rational is this belief in the right of a father to act on behalf of his daughter? What is rationality, one could ask? Does the law’s notion of sanity really help to capture the situation described in the novel? What is the complex nature between the community’s ideas of justice and the law’s due process?

As I’ve already suggested, the bulk of the novel is taken up in setting up the trial, which does not occur, actually, until the last 100 pages (of over 500). By that time, the reader is well acquainted with lawyers hustling and (unethically) chasing cases, a district attorney interested in becoming a governor and having little interest in justice, and a sheriff who allows his most famous defendant to use his office, plays cards with him, and treats him largely as though he has done nothing wrong despite knowing with certainty that Carl Lee is guilty. Carl Lee, it is clear, is still a stand-up citizen – he would never have broken the law had his daughter not been raped. And, ultimately, Carl Lee is found “not guilty” by the jury of all white citizens. The final arguments in the case do not quite follow the same emotionally charged narrative as in the movie, but Jake Brigance manages to win despite the fact that much has gone wrong with his defense by the end of the novel. It’s his skill that wins the day, keeping Carl Lee from being executed. Justice, the novel suggests, wills out because there is a time when killing is necessary, and the legal system should recognize this. As if the book hadn’t already produced much worth discussing, this conclusion, which is the title of the book, is itself well worth interrogating in any course on law, politics, and justice.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Laura J. Hatcher.