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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Sycamore Row by John Grisham – You will not read a better current legal thriller than Sycamore Row. Grisham returns to the town of Clanton in Ford County, Mississippi and Jake Brigance, the lawyer with whom he started his writing career in A Time to Kill. This book is set in the late 1980’s about 3 years after the dramatic murder trial in A Time to Kill.

On a fall Sunday afternoon reclusive businessman, Seth Hubbard, hangs himself from a Sycamore tree after leaving meticulous instructions for his burial.

The next day Brigance, while opening the mail, finds a letter posted the previous Saturday. Inside are a letter and a will. The letter to Brigance from Hubbard advises that by the time Brigance reads the letter he will have taken his own life as he is dying from lung cancer. Hubbard continues that the will is a holograph will that he has written that Saturday. (A holograph will is a will made totally in the handwriting of the testator and does not need witnesses.) He assures Brigance that it meets the requirements for such a will and he directs Brigance to defend his will at all costs as it “is likely to start some trouble”. Hubbard, who has never met Brigance and who despises Clanton lawyers, admires Brigance for his defence in the Hailey murder.

The will is a model of simplicity and clarity. Hubbard gives 5% to his brother, Ancil Hubbard, and 5% to the Irish Road Christian Church and 90% to his housekeeper, Lettie Lang, as “thanks for her dedicated service and friendship to me during these past few years”. In harsh language he excludes his son and daughter and directs they only be advised of the will after the funeral because:

I want my family to be forced to go through all the rituals of mourning before they realize they get nothing. Watch them fake it – they’re very good at it. They have no love for me.

Bitter is too tender a word to describe the relationships between the Hubbards.

When Brigance learns that Hubbard is white and Lang is black a shiver runs through him as he knows a bitter will fight is ahead of him.

Prior to the funeral Herschel Hubbard and his sister, Ramona Dafoe, and his brother-in-law, Ian Dafoe, gather at their father’s home. While they can barely stand each other they unite to summarily dismiss Lang grouching about her being paid $5.00 an hour to be housekeeper.

A prominent law firm from Tupelo advises them that Seth Hubbard has made them his primary beneficiaries in a will prepared several months earlier. With both children barely making a go of it financially they eagerly anticipate what they will do with the money.

Stunned is a mild description of the reaction of Lang and the Hubbard children when they learn the next day of the terms of the holograph will.

When Brigance learns that Hubbard’s estate is worth $24 million with about $12 million left after estate taxes the last ingredient for a vicious will contest is in place.

It is a shocking amount for Ford County is poor. Making a living is hard. Few people do better than get by.

With millions at stake, lawyers flock to Clanton. Within days a dozen lawyers are involved, eager to contest the will for Hubbard’s children and grandchildren.

Early in the case Brigance struggles with the decision on whether to proceed to a judge alone trial or a jury trial. It is a choice with which I am well familiar. It can be pivotal to the success of a case yet it is a call that involves as much feel for the case as analysis. It is the type of decision that sorts out good lawyers from average lawyers.

The court action proceeds as I would expect for a major will challenge. Did Hubbard have testamentary capacity, the ability to make a will? Did Lang unduly influence him?

The twists and turns are fascinating and that is before the trial even starts.

Having been involved in several disputed wills cases I can relate to the emotions such actions cause as lifetimes of family grievances and good times influence decisions.

Grisham shows that a civil court case can be as exciting, even more exciting, than a murder trial.

Can Jake Brigance win a second trial for a black Mississippian? Race relations are gradually improving though blacks know their place in Clanton society.

Grisham provides such succinct and useful instructions for being a witness in a deposition that I expect to steal the advice when I next prepare witnesses:

            Be polite. Be concise. Don’t volunteer. If you don’t know,
            then you don’t know.
As with each of his books set in the rural South, Grisham makes me believe the characters could be found in a town in northern Mississippi. Their language, backgrounds and actions are all convincing.

Last year I found The Racketeer a clever book but hoped Grisham would go back to the Deep South in his next book. He has returned brilliantly with Sycamore Row. It is as good as The Confession.

Set aside a day if you pick up the book. You will need the time.


  1. Bill - I'm so glad to hear you liked this one. I'm not surprised that you found the details of the preparation for the case, and the case itself, to be both authentic and compelling. Grisham is very good that way and I'm not surprised to hear that the issues surrounding the will are explored in realistic and interesting ways. I do like the Brigance character very much, and that's great advice for witnesses. Thanks for reminding us of this one.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Grisham is writing more complex and challenging books over 20 books into his writing career. Not many authors can say the same.

  2. Rah! Rah! So glad to hear this stellar review, and am even gladder that I recommended it,
    I got the book for two friends for the holidays. Now I have to read it.


    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the enthusiastic comment. I would have guessed you had already read the book from your previous comments. I am not much of an armchair sleuth.

  3. Bill, your legal background and expertise reflects in your review which has prompted me to move this new novel by Grisham right up my list of contemporary authors. In fact, I'm looking forward to reading it soon.

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the kind words. I hope I will a review of Sycamore Row by yourself.

  4. I read stellar reviews of the book and heard very positive comments from friends, so I knew it was good.

  5. A day? This is what I read for the last several days, mixed in with tasks and work I had to do, but it was so tempting to let a lot of things go by the wayside, which I confess I did.

    This is a terrific book, one with all of the necessary ingredients for an excellent legal mystery.
    Grisham sure knows how to write them, with a lot of character development, history of and sense of place in Mississippi 1988. And he certainly deals with racism, poverty, the history of segregation and more.

    I give this a 5 star rating out of 5.

    Now on to The Confession after I have a breather with a few other books.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for your comments. I equally think it is an outstanding book. I would not be surprised to see it among the 2014 finalists for the Harper Lee Prize.

      Be in a good state of mind when you read The Confession. Its portrayal of a death penalty case is harrowing.

  6. Just finished the book last night and I think it is one of his better ones. Compared to criminal law, it's hard to make civil law sexy, but he does a fantastic job of going through the preparations and pitfalls of the case. The ending felt inevitable, but still a pretty haunting story in a story. I would definitely recommend this one, especially to those with an interest the law.

    1. mike: Thanks for the comment. I agree that it one of his better books. Grisham can really take a reader into the heart of a court case.