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Discussion of the novel could begin with how readers respond to Jake, if they feel he is a "good" lawyer, whatever "good" means. Jake is not a white knight. He is flawed and multifaceted: capable of honor, willing to challenge the rules, able to be ferocious in pursuit of his cause, tentative in response to temptations (from alcohol and from Ellen), He will not do anything to win, as he will not allow Lucien to bribe a juror. Jake wants to win the case himself through the use of his own tactics. Perhaps this pride in himself emerges as his dominant feature.

Any number of supporting characters merit discussion as Grisham lavishes on his creations full-bodied descriptions, backgrounds, and meaty scenes. Ellen, Harry Rex, Norman Reinfeld, Lester, and others exemplify Grisham's mastery of characterization. This willingness to spend time with the thoughts and histories of secondary players recalls the discursive techniques of fellow Mississippian William Faulkner; for both authors, the detailed character portrayals enhance the realistic sense of place, the appeals to history as an explanation of the present, and the thematic concerns. With two particular characters, Grisham twists stereotypes in unexpected ways to create unique individuals. Ozzie Walls seems to partake of the traits of the stereotypical tough white Southern sheriff. Ozzie uses violence as he hauls away offenders and lowlifes; he coerces a confession by reciting what happens to rapists in prison; he savagely beats a bomber outside Jake's house; he freely says "niggers" to refer to blacks when he talks to whites. Making the man who possesses these standard traits black disconcerts expectations. (A good contrast to Ozzie is black police chief Tucker Watts in Chiefs [1981] by Stuart Woods. In the early 1960s, Tucker Watts encounters considerable resistance when he takes command of the police in a white-majority Georgia town.) As the scion of Clanton's leading family, Lucien would be expected either to be aligned with business interests or to be wholesomely liberal (in the manner of Faulkner's do-gooding lawyer Gavin Stevens). Instead, Lucien divorces himself from his past and turns radical, pursuing every unpopular cause he can find and glorying in his status as a pariah. He tells the story that when he was little he unknowingly tried to get on the segregated school bus with his black playmates, thinking they would all go to school together. The story makes the common white Southern distinction that country playmates could be black but schoolmates could only be white. The story also recalls and inverts the famous scene in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) in which the young poor white Thomas Sutpen is turned away from the front door of a plantation house; both Sutpen and Lucien learn that they are different and that they have their special, reserved places. Both resolve to remake themselves and to establish their own places where these affronts cannot occur again.

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