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Crime & Beyond met this month to discuss Sycamore Row by John Grisham. This book took place in the 1980s and is a sequel to Grisham’s A Time to Kill, where lawyer Jake Brigance defends a black man accused of killing his daughter’s rapists. As the book opens, it’s 3 years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial and Jake is still fighting the insurance company over the value of his home that was burned down. Racial tension is still high in Ford County, Mississippi, and Jake is handling piddly cases to get by. He receives a letter from Seth Hubbard, along with a handwritten will. The letter asks Jake to defend the enclosed will at all costs. The will leaves millions of dollars to Seth’s black housekeeper, Lettie. Seth, dying of cancer, has just hung himself from a Sycamore tree on his property. The story follows the jury trial that puts Jake back in the courtroom, where he likes to be. Seth’s kids and grandkids are trying to prove undue influence and diminished capacity and Jake is trying to do what he was hired to do, defend Seth’s last will.

Strangely enough, we have never read a John Grisham book as a group. I find this strange because we tend to go with a lot of mainstream authors so that there are enough copies of books, yet Grisham has never been chosen. Of course, the scores weren’t quite as high as many of our other books, perhaps therein lies a clue as to why we’ve never read this author. When I see 80% of the scores for a book in the 8-10 range, I figure the group as a whole liked the book. This book, however, was a bit across the board. Of the 13 scores received, there were five scores of 8, one 9 and one 10. The remaining 6 votes averaged to about a 5. I would say that the majority of members thought the book was just ok.

The positive comments were that the writing was very good, it was an easy read, the characters were interesting, the plot twist was good, and the racial tension was very accurate. We also had a comment “it was better than A Time to Kill” but I don’t think that’s really a glowing review Amy. Judy was burned out on legal books but still really liked this one. Pat though there were too many characters, and I think we all agreed there were a lot, but she still enjoyed the book. Jose remembered some of the characters from the first book and many of us liked revisiting them. Harry Rex, Lucien and Ozzie were mentioned. One of the new characters that we liked was Portia.

Some of the negative comments were the flip side of the positive ones. The high scores were for great characters, but the low scores were from people who didn’t care about the characters. Some just thought the book was boring. The events were predictable and the actions of some of the characters didn’t seem logical. Jeff didn’t like the fact that it took Jake so much research to uncover Lettie’s connection, yet we saw no trail of any research Seth had done to figure things out. He kept waiting for a witness to tell Jake that an old man looked him up and asked him the same questions. So it didn’t ring true that Seth figured out who Lettie was prior to leaving her everything in his will.

A red herring that many of us followed was that Lettie would turn out to be Seth’s illegitimate daughter. By the time we found out how Lettie fit into Seth’s life, I don’t think it was a jaw dropper, but I do think it was a somewhat satisfying twist. The judge allowing Ansel’s video to be played for the jury was questionable, but made for a good story and most of us accepted it for what it was, a tactic included in a book of fiction to further the story. I can similarly suspend my disbelief when Kate Beckett allows Richard Castle to enter a gunfight while wearing a bulletproof vest that says “writer” on it. It’s just fiction.

A few people listened to the book on audio, and there were mixed reports on the skill of the narrator. So this may not be one to recommend to a friend who plans to listen.

It was funny because several people said they really wanted to like the book more, but just couldn’t. Many were fans of Grisham’s previous books and liked them better than this one. It did give us a good discussion about segregation and small town politics. We thoroughly discussed the theme of greed that ran throughout the book.

We didn’t do the slap vote, too many characters, too little time. Dave did offer up a hug vote, though. He hugged Jeff, the father of the 2 boys who were killed by Lettie’s husband. Dave was impressed by his ability to forgive.

Next month is the holiday party and we’ll discuss Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I will lead and we will all bring snacks. Invitation sent by separate email.

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