A Time to Kill is a legal thriller written by John Grisham in 1989. The setting is a small town in Mississippi one hour south of Memphis, Tennessee. About two-thirds of the county is black and one-third is white, but 90% of all residents are poor. Add to this a serious dope ring, the Ku Klux Klan, and a tiny little girl who is brutally beaten and raped and you have the makings of an incredible story.
10 out of 10 stars for a great novel. Grisham’s writing makes it easy to read although he does spend a lot of time developing side characters that don’t always have important roles. One thing Grisham does that makes it sometimes difficult to read is changing character point of view constantly from one paragraph to the next (aka head hopping). There were times that it took me a few minutes before I realized he’d changed POV (point of view) again. But the story was worth reading.
In the small town (population 8,000) of Clanton, Mississippi, ten year-old Tonya Hailey is walking home with a bag of groceries her mother Gwen asked her to get. Ordinarily any or all of her three brothers would’ve been sent the mile walk to the store to get groceries but they’re pulling weeds as punishment for something they did and her father Carl Lee insisted they not be allowed to go anywhere. Tonya is tiny for her age, but she doesn’t get sidetracked. A shiny new yellow pickup with a rebel flag in the back pulls up alongside her and Pete Willard opens the window and throws an unopened beer can at her head, knocking her out. The driver, Billy Ray Cobb, is a dope dealer and has been in prison three times already at the age of 23. Willard is four years older but has managed to stay out of prison. He is one of Cobb’s few friends because Cobb has a violent temper and a bad habit. They tie Tonya’s tiny arms behind her back at the elbows and lay her on the ground. Then they tie one ankle to a tree and the other to a fence post and tighten both so much that her body is lifted off the ground and her legs are spread so far apart they are dislocated. Then these two men proceed to beat and violently rape the little girl, kicking her when they are finished. This goes on for several hours until the two men are so doped up and so drunk they start throwing full beer cans at her as target practice. One of her eyes is swollen shut. The other eye is dangling from its socket. Both jaws are broken. And her arms have been tied in such a way, at the elbow behind her, that the weight of these men and the pressure of them jumping on her has broken both arms in pieces.
At this point, Cobb decides it’s time to kill her. He wraps a rope around her throat and drags her across the ground, eventually tying the other end of the rope to his pickup. Then fate intervenes and a vehicle approaches. Quickly, Cobb unties the rope from his pickup and throws Tonya into the back of the pickup. He and Willard hop in and drive away.
Now Cobb has a problem with disposing of the body. He wants to drown her or hang her from one of the many bridges in the county, but every black man in the county is fishing off the bridges with cane poles. He drives to one bridge after another and then starts trying all the lakes, but they’re crowded too. Eventually he pulls off a side road and dumps her in a ravine, then drives away. And therein lies his fatal mistake. That little girl is tough and she can identify both of them. Cobb and Willard assume she’s dead because she’s drenched in blood and has so many broken bones. But she’s not. While Cobb and Willard go get drunk at the local honkytonk bar, Tonya will crawl to the road and get found by a group of black neighbors coming back from fishing.
The Sheriff of Clanton is a black former high school football player, famous among the residents, named Ozzie Walls. And it’s Cobb’s bad luck that Ozzie is smart and well-liked. The minute Ozzie finds out what happened, he knows who did it, Cobb. He sends one of his snitches to the honkytonk where Cobb is drinking and has him report back everything that Cobb says. Cobb and Willard brag about raping an eight year old black virgin and laugh about it amongst their friends. Her bloody shirt is still in the back of Cobb’s shiny yellow pickup with the rebel flag in the back, the exact vehicle and flag Tonya identified before she was taken to the hospital and put immediately into surgery.
From that point on, the good men of Clanton, Mississippi do everything they can to make sure Cobb and Willard never have a chance to repeat what they’ve done. Ozzie gets a full confession from Willard who tells them everything and puts it in writing. Both men are indicted. And Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, drives to Memphis to see his war buddy, a nightclub owner and gun runner, about an M16. The following Monday, as Cobb and Willard leave their bail hearing, Carl Lee guns them both down in the stairwell after hiding in the janitor closet. But before he kills Cobb and Willard he hires the best litigator in the county, Jake Brigance. Jake has tried three capital murder cases and got every one of his defendants off, including Carl Lee’s brother Lester. Jake has a four year old daughter, Hanna.
The entire first third of the book is the crime, the capture of the two rapists, the confession, the arraignment, the planning of the murders, and the bail hearing. The rest of the novel is about Ford County, Mississippi and the tide of racism that still exists. Many of these folks don’t even realize they are racist. Until Jake asks them to imagine Tonya is white. Then everything changes.
I won’t spoil this one but the ending is surprising. An innocent deputy is injured during the shooting and loses his leg below the knee. And yet he wants Carl Lee to get off just as much as everyone else.
10 out of 10 stars. This is often referred to as John Grisham’s best novel. There’s a reason for that. After reading this one, try Sycamore Row which is sort of a sequel.