A Time to Kill (Grisham novel)

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A Time to Kill
A Time To Kill.jpg
Wynwood Press Book Club Edition cover
Author John Grisham
Country United States
Language English
Genre Legal thriller
Publisher Wynwood Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 515 pp
ISBN 0-440-21172-7
OCLC 26089618

A Time to Kill is a 1988 legal thriller by John Grisham. It was Grisham's first novel. The novel was rejected by many publishers before Wynwood Press eventually gave it a modest 5,000-copy printing. When Doubleday published The Firm, Wynwood released a trade paperback of A Time to Kill, which became a bestseller. Dell published the mass market paperback months after the success of The Firm, bringing Grisham to widespread popularity among readers. Doubleday eventually took over the contract for A Time to Kill and released a special hardcover edition.

In 1996, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson. In 2011, it was further adapted into a stage play of the same name by Rupert Holmes. The stage production opened at the Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.) in May 2011 and opened on Broadway in October 2013.


The story takes place in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi in the 1980s, a period of time during which racial tension was heavily prevalent in America. This setting is also featured in other John Grisham novels. Three of the characters, Jake Brigance, Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks, later appear in the 2013 sequel Sycamore Row. Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks also appear in Grisham's 2003 novel The Last Juror, which is set in Clanton in the 1970s. Harry Rex Vonner also appears in the 2002 Grisham novel, The Summons, and in the short story "Fish Files," in the 2009 collection Ford County. A brief reference to the events depicted in the book is also contained in Grisham's 1994 novel The Chamber.


In 1984 at the De Soto County courthouse in Hernando, Grisham witnessed the harrowing testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim.[1] The inspiration came from the case of the rape and assault of 12 year old Marcie Scott and her 16-year-old sister Julie Scott. Unlike Grisham's depiction, however, the Scotts were white and their assailant, Willie Harris, was black.[2] According to Grisham's official website, Grisham used his spare time to begin his first novel, which "explored what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants." [1] He spent three years on A Time to Kill and finished it in 1987. Grisham has also cited Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as an influence. This book is set in 1984.[3] Another stated inspiration was the success of Presumed Innocent.[4]


In the small town of Clanton, in fictional Ford County, Mississippi, a ten-year-old African-American girl named Tonya Hailey is viciously raped and beaten by two redneck white supremacists, James "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb. Tonya is later found and rushed to the hospital while Pete and Billy Ray are heard bragging at a roadside bar about their crime. Tonya's distraught and outraged father, Carl Lee Hailey, consults his friend Jake Brigance, a white attorney who had previously represented Hailey's brother, on whether he could get himself acquitted if he killed the two men. Jake tells Carl Lee not to do anything stupid, but admits that if it had been his daughter, he would kill the rapists. Carl Lee is determined to avenge Tonya and, while Pete and Billy Ray are being led into holding after their bond hearing, he kills both men with an M-16.

Carl Lee is charged with capital murder. Despite efforts to persuade Carl Lee to retain high-powered attorneys, he elects to be represented by Jake. Helping Jake are two loyal friends, disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks and sleazy divorce lawyer Harry Rex Vonner. Later, the team is assisted by liberal law student Ellen Roark, who has prior experience with death penalty cases and offers her services as a temporary clerk pro bono. Ellen appears to be interested in Jake romantically, but the married Jake resists her overtures. The team also receives some illicit behind-the-scenes help from black county sheriff Ozzie Walls, a figure beloved by the black community and also well respected by the white community who upholds the law by arresting Carl Lee but, as the father of two daughters of his own, privately supports Carl Lee and gives him special treatment while in jail and goes out of the way to assist Jake in any way he legally can. Carl Lee is prosecuted by Ford County's corrupt district attorney, Rufus Buckley, who hopes that the case will boost his political career. It is claimed that the judge presiding over Carl Lee's trial, Omar "Ichabod" Noose, has been intimidated by local white supremacist elements. This proves true when, despite having no history of racist inclinations in his rulings, Noose refuses Jake's perfectly reasonable request for a change of venue, even though the racial make-up of Ford County virtually guarantees an all-white jury.

Billy Ray's brother, Freddy, seeks revenge against Carl Lee, enlisting the help of the Mississippi branch of the Ku Klux Klan and its Grand Dragon, Stump Sisson. Subsequently, the KKK attempts to plant a bomb beneath Jake's porch, leading him to send his wife and daughter out of town until the trial is over. Later, the KKK attacks Jake's secretary, Ethel Twitty, and kills her frail husband, Bud. On the day the trial begins, a riot erupts between the KKK and the area's black residents outside of the courthouse; Stump is killed by a molotov cocktail. Believing that the black people are at fault for Stump's death, Freddy and the KKK increase their attacks. As a result, the National Guard is called to Clanton to keep the peace during Carl Lee's trial. Undeterred, Freddy continues his efforts to get revenge for Billy Ray's death. The KKK shoots at Jake one morning as he is being escorted into the courthouse, missing Jake but seriously wounding one of the guardsmen assigned to protect him. They continue to burn crosses throughout Clanton. Later, they burn down Jake's house, killing his dog.

Despite the loss of his house and several setbacks at the start of the trial, Jake perseveres. Jake badly discredits the state's psychiatrist by establishing that he has never conceded to the insanity of any defendant in any criminal case in which he has been asked to testify, even when several other doctors have been in consensus otherwise. He traps the doctor with a revelation that several previous defendants found insane in their trials are currently under his care despite his having testified to their "sanity" in their respective trials. Jake follows this up with a captivating closing statement. After lengthy deliberations, the jury acquits Carl Lee by reason of temporary insanity. Carl Lee returns to his family and the story ends with Jake, Lucien and Harry Rex having a celebratory drink before Jake holds a press conference and leaving town to reunite with his family.

Legal issues and social conventions

At the heart of the novel is a deep discrepancy between written law and prevailing social conventions.

Since the facts of the case are undisputed - Carl Lee did kill the two rapists - the only way in law to get a verdict of not guilty is to plead temporary insanity. Ellen Roark prepares for Brigance a thorough study of all Mississippi precedents touching on the relevant British M'Naghten rules which apply in Mississippi as in sixteen other U.S. states. Brigance gets a psychiatrist to prove that Carl Lee was indeed insane while committing his act, and the state gets an opposing psychiatrist to assert he was completely sane and therefore culpable. Much of the trial is devoted to the prosecution and defense trying to discredit each other's expert witnesses. Yet in fact, no one truly takes seriously the issue of Carl Lee's sanity, and it has only a marginal place in the jurors' deliberations and the final verdict they reach.

The true issue, of which everybody is acutely aware though it is never mentioned in open court, is quite different, i.e. the right to private, extrajudicial revenge. There is no such right recognized in American law, but as depicted in the book, in the prevailing social conventions of Ford County such a right is generally accepted and taken for granted. Throughout the book, numerous minor and major characters, including the protagonist Brigance himself, repeatedly express the opinion that in the case of rape and certainly in the case of a particularly brutal rape of a very young girl, the victim's father is entitled to exact revenge her rapists. Many characters say outright that such an act of revenge should not only be condoned but also praised.

It is taken for granted by everybody that, had it been a white father on trial on identical charges, an acquittal would have been a certain and foregone verdict. The only real question at issue is whether or not such a socially-recognized right of private revenge would also apply to a black father taking revenge on white rapists. This makes it an issue of racial equality, getting it a nationwide interest and making the NAACP intervene on one side and the Ku Klux Klan on the other. Also, during deliberations the question of Carl Lee's sanity, which in theory should have been the paramount consideration in fact has only a marginal place. The jurors' deadlock is broken when a female juror makes an emotional appeal to her fellow jurors, asking them to imagine how they would have ruled if "a white ten years old girl, blond and blue-eyed" had been raped and brutalized by two drunken blacks. All jurors viscerally agree that in such a case they would have acquitted a vengeful white father, which leads them to agree that a black father deserves the same verdict.



A sequel novel, titled Sycamore Row, was released on October 22, 2013.[9]


  1. ^ a b "John Grisham: The Official Site - Bio". Retrieved 2011-11-27. 
  2. ^ "Harris v. State of Mississippi". Retrieved 2016-08-29. 
  3. ^ John Grisham, The Chamber, Doubleday, 1994, p.251
  4. ^ DuChateau, Christian (2011-10-28). "Grisham talks ambulance chasers, eBooks". CNN. Retrieved 2011-10-30. 
  5. ^ Jones, Kenneth. "Grisham's A Time to Kill Will Premiere at Arena Stage Before NYC; Letts, Morton Join Season". Playbill. Archived from the original on 14 March 2010. Retrieved 21 May 2011. 
  6. ^ Gans, Andrew (October 20, 2013). "John Grisham Novel Comes to Life in 'A Time to Kill', Opening on Broadway Oct. 20". Playbill. Archived from the original on November 4, 2013. 
  7. ^ Gans, Andrew (November 6, 2013). "'A Time to Kill', Based on John Grisham Novel, Sets Broadway Closing Date". Playbill. Archived from the original on November 7, 2013. 
  8. ^ "'A Time to Kill' Broadway". Playbillvault.com. Retrieved January 8, 2016. 
  9. ^ "John Grisham sequel to 'A Time to Kill' to be published | Shelf Life | EW.com". Entertainment Weekly. May 1, 2013. Retrieved May 1, 2013. 

External links

  • John Grisham's official website
  • Identify first edition copies of A Time to Kill
  • A Time to Kill official Broadway website
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