"Sycamore Row" by bestselling author John Grisham (Doubleday, $28.95) is another top-notch legal thriller by one of the masters of the genre.
It returns to the 1980's in Mississippi, three years after attorney Jack Brigance triumphed in "A Time to Kill", Grisham's first novel, which came out almost 25 years ago.
While it features some of the same characters, this is a totally different case, although there are references to the earlier murder trial.
The oppressive racial attitudes haven't changed much either. Brigance faces real challenges when he opens his mail one Monday morning and discovers a handwritten will and clear instructions from Seth Hubbard, who he has never met.
Hubbard, who was dying of lung cancer, hung himself the day before; he's willed 90% of his large estate to Lettie Lang, his housekeeper, who worked for him for three years.
This by itself would be a bit unusual, but since Hubbard was white and his maid is black, it's quite controversial.
In the racially tense, small fictional town of Clanton Mississippi, this behavior is unheard of; the reclusive Hubbard specifically left nothing to his two adult children or his grandchildren.
Hubbard left 5% to his church and another 5% to his long-lost brother; other family members are furious. Many assorted attorneys and relatives come out of the woodwork to join the chase and get part of the money.
With over $20 million at stake, Hubbard's family members are protesting the will's legality. Their attorney's are claiming that Hubbard was confused and out of his mind on pain killers when he wrote the updated will and instructions.
The attorneys dig deeply, trying to discover anything that will discredit the wealthy businessman or the housekeeper.
Reuben Atlee, the feisty judge who's handling the case, has his own legal opinions; Brigance gets help from other friendly associates, police officials and unexpected sources.
This is a well-written book, with smooth storytelling and many vivid plot twists and turns. The strong characterization makes Grisham's novel quite entertaining; the shocking conclusion is dramatic yet believable. It'll make a great movie.
Grisham's written over 30 books, including some for children; if you haven't read any in a while, this would be an excellent place to start.
Ray Walsh, owner of East Lansing’s Curious Book Shop,
has reviewed crime novels and noir thrillers regularly since 1987.
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This review was originally published by the Lansing State Journal on Sunday, January 19, 2014.