Literary Techniques

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A Time to Kill is not a streamlined novel, as are Grisham's later efforts in the thriller genre. In addition to vivid characterization, Grisham lingers over many specifics of place. A fine scene in which Jake takes Ellen to a restaurant leads to a humorous and succulent discussion of Southern food. All the details offer the reader a total immersion into a highly particularized place populated by extremely well-drawn characters.

For a first novel, the book reveals highly accomplished techniques. Grisham deftly juggles his large cast. He demonstrates the suspense that will fuel his later career as he sends trouble after trouble to beset Jake. As he does in other novels, he grabs readers with a tense, violent start: He describes the rape of the girl without being pathetic yet still conveying the horror and while making odd fun of the attackers (one complains that the little girl dripped her blood in the beer cooler). He adopts a flat, understating style that makes the events disturbing: As the men throw their beer cans at the girl, Grisham writes, "Willard had trouble with the target, but Cobb was fairly accurate." Grisham also shows his flair for dialog, another skill that will become a trademark. Especially when he narrates a courtroom exchange, the dialog snaps and seems authentic. The blistering cross-examinations Jake and Rufus inflict upon each other's experts show both Grisham's achievement at dialog and his adeptness at narrating technical legal processes.

Grisham employs a wry humor, unexpected with such downbeat material as rape, vigilantism, and capital murder. A Time to Kill is a surprisingly funny book. He throws in asides such as this description of Norman Reinfeld as he and Jake are about to meet: "Reinfeld was no pushover when it came to arrogance . . . He was arrogant and insolent by nature. Jake had to work at it," Ozzie threatens the white rapists, who endure the menacing stares of the black inmates in the nearby jail cells: "stay quiet, or he would integrate his jail." In scenes that could be unrelievedly horrible, Grisham finds a source of mirth. Having left the tortured bomber alone to dismantle his device, Ozzie, Jake, and another officer debate who should go check on the bomber. The officer suggests Jake, as, after all, it is Jake's house that is being threatened. When a cross burns on Jake's yard, the officers wonder what to do, as they had never seen a burning cross before, and ask whether it will flame itself out. After being intimidated by Jake in court, one of the rapists' mothers howls theatrically as she is led from the courtroom. A Time to Kill encourages sober reflection on the state of law and race relations and also encourages smiles and guffaws from readers. Perhaps this mix of techniques accounts for Grisham's success: swiftly-paced stories, thoughtful and complex treatments of issues, and a dry, satiric tone.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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This novel fits comfortably in discussion groups and classes devoted to law and literature, crime and literature, and Southern writing. The book challenges readers to re-examine their overall trust in the justice system: in trials as mechanisms for finding truth, in prosecutors, in expert witnesses, in juries. Asking for reactions to this portrait of the system can initiate a lively debate, as will asking readers to evaluate Jake. Grisham endows the characters with such colorful traits that many of them can spark a good discussion: is Ozzie just in tormenting the bomber, is Ellen an admirable woman, would you hire Harry Rex to handle your divorce?

Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird offers a strong contrast to Jake,...

(This entire section contains 582 words.)

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and invoking Harper Lee's novel relates not only to legal matters but to the Southern setting. Readers could discuss how the South of this novel matches the progressive reputation of the contemporary South. Many books that highlight race and violence in the South, especially those by William Faulkner, can be compared toA Time to Kill as a means of asking how the South has or has not changed.

1. This novel describes in detail the judicial proceedings of a capital murder case. How do the proceedings relate to the issue of justice? Do the proceedings produce justice? How does skill at law figure the accomplishment of justice? How does the book impact your beliefs in the American system of criminal justice?

2. What does "justice" mean in this novel? How often and in what contexts do the characters use the term?

3. Who are the "good" lawyers in the book? What does "good" mean in this context — adept at legal tactics, or morally upstanding, or both?

4. If you were in legal trouble, would you hire Jake Brigance? (If you needed a lawyer for a divorce proceeding, would you retain Harry Rex Vonner?)

5. How comfortable are you with the resolution of Carl Lee's case?

6. Why do so many lawyers want to defend Carl Lee? Jake turns down the chance to defend Pete Willard, but fights off others to keep Carl Lee as a client. Why?

7. If Jake did lose the case to Norman Reinfeld of the NAACP, would the basic defense strategy have been different? If Carl Lee is to insist upon his right of trial, what possible strategic options does an attorney have in defending him? (Here you might consider the Nesler case from California in 1993-1994 as a real-life analogue.)

8. What aspects of the book do you think you will recall when you read about or discuss other court cases?

9. Is Ozzie a good sheriff? Is his interrogation of the bomber just?

10. Consider the book as a portrait of the contemporary South, and look at Grisham's attention to matters of social class, race, the status of women, small town life, even food. How does the region seem alike and different compared to your own home place? How is book like or unlike other literary portraits of the South?

11. How would you define race relations in Clanton?

12. How do you react to the characters' frequent, even constant use of the racial epithet? What does its use mean to these characters?

13. What is the status of women in Clanton? What does Grisham accomplish by inserting Ellen Roark into this environment?

14. This book is not in the thriller genre, yet matched the sales of Grisham's thrillers. How can you explain this book's best-selling appeal? What is your reaction to Grisham's assessment that this is his best book?

Social Concerns

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A Time to Kill takes place in the town of Clanton, in Ford County, a fictionalized version of Grisham's home region, northern Mississippi. The area is rural, removed from the bustle of life in the city. The town's population is 8,000, 74% of them white, but the black presence is quite visible. This environment recalls the settings of a multitude of Southern novels, notably William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha saga set in the same region.

A crime with profound racial overtones disrupts the region. Two rednecks kidnap, repeatedly rape, and leave for dead a ten-year-old black girl. Her father, Carl Lee Hailey, blows the attackers apart with an M-16 as they leave the courtroom after their bail hearing. Grisham claims that he created this plot in response to watching a similar girl agonizingly testify in a rape case. Most of Clanton's citizens agree that if a white father had committed such vigilantism against two black rapists, he would not suffer any legal penalties. But as a black man, Carl Lee faces capital murder charges and is eligible for the death penalty if he is convicted. Because Carl Lee clearly planned and carried out the offense, his most obvious defense strategy is to plead not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

As an account of Carl Lee's case, A Time to Kill provides one of fullest literary representations of the sequence of legal procedures in a murder case: preliminary hearing — bail hearing — grand jury deliberation — arraignment — hearing for motions — actual trial. The book further dramatizes the shattering impact of this case on the region; Grisham makes his book a portrait of the attitudes, life ways, and nether side of the contemporary Deep South. The portrait, done with fine humorous touches and an appreciation for the region, is not always flattering; Grisham presents deeply-ingrained corruption, racism, and proclivities for violence.

Within a large cast, the book centers on Carl Lee's white attorney, Jake Brigance. Jake defines himself by contrast with Clanton's Sullivan firm: "They [the Sullivan lawyers] had the big farmers, the banks, the insurance companies, the railroads, everybody with money. The other fourteen lawyers in the county picked up the scraps and represented people — living, breathing human souls, most of whom had very little money. These were the 'street lawyers' — those in the trenches helping people in trouble. Jake was proud to be a street lawyer." Although he may have idealism for his job, he defends these people in trouble by whatever means possible. Grisham explains Jake's views on taking black clients who face assault charges: "Jake enjoyed the stabbings because acquittals were possible; just get an all-white jury full of rednecks who could care less if all niggers stabbed each other. They were just having a little fun down at the tonk, things got out of hand, one got stabbed, but didn't die. No harm, no conviction." These are hardly the thoughts of an idealist. Jake is quite willing to use discomforting, even morally dubious tactics to win his cases. Carl Lee's case provides significant incentives to win: Jake feels great empathy with Carl Lee, and Jake realizes that winning will make him the hottest lawyer in Ford County. So Jake will do what it takes to win.

Jake's attitudes toward his cases exemplify the American adversarial system of justice. Unlike some European systems in which trial participants sift evidence before a panel of judges, the trial procedure in America pits two sides against each other in a contest in which strategies often matter more than the unbiased presentation of evidence. The lawyers become advocates, champions, even servants of their respective sides rather than to the truth or to justice. Jake and his adversary, ambitious District Attorney Rufus Buckley (fictional prosecutors are always politically ambitious), may believe in the Tightness of their positions, but they also relish the thrill of the contest and allow the trial to take on a momentum of its own.

As both lawyers desperately want to win, both readily use tactics that stretch taste and ethics. Both sides get early access to the list of potential jurors. Both sides employ psychiatrists who will say in court whatever the case demands regardless of the real mental condition of the defendant. Jake needles Rufus to upset him, embraces Carl Lee's family in a show of sympathy to impress the jury, and brutalizes the rapists' mothers during cross-examination — tactics which may not advance the cause of justice but which do win advantages for Jake's side.

As unsettling as Jake's actions may seem, he fights a larger, more malevolent evil. The revived Ku Klux Klan, galvanized by the racial aspects of the case, tries to bomb Jake's house, kills an officer who was guarding him, and intimidates potential jurors. This last act means that they have access to the jury list, and haunting the plot is the strong possibility that they got it from Rufus, that the D.A. is totally corrupted.

Grisham refuses to cast Jake as a noble, always-by-the-rules, idealistic attorney, but Grisham also renders Jake's enemies as far greater offenders than he; Jake cannot adequately defend Carl Lee unless he resorts to questionable tactics.

The book presents an overall atmosphere of deception. Black jurors, who tend to oppose the death penalty, know to lie and say they support it so that they can stay in the jury pool and thus maybe serve for Carl Lee's case. A black minister hoards money intended for the relief of the Hailey family and refuses to release it. Sheriff Ozzie Walls, a very appealing character, illegally coerces a confession from one of the rapists and then tortures a confession from a bomber. As repulsive as Ozzie's victims are, he treats them with a cruelty that is disturbing. Jake's lawyer friends obtain for him forbidden information. Lucien Wilbanks, Jake's mentor and a longtime advocate of liberal causes, bribed a juror in an earlier case and wants to bribe one of Carl Lee's jurors. Almost no character is a knight-on-a-white-horse, a wholly good person. Grisham deftly keeps readers off-kilter. Readers may root for Jake and Carl Lee, but Grisham constantly remind readers how grubby, unpleasant, and morally dubious each man can be.

The contestants in the adversarial system seldom mention justice except as a means of grandstanding. Jake and Rufus, and the other lawyers as well, essentially want to win specific outcomes, which they call justice. They do operate under some basic principles. Jake does believe that Carl Lee should not suffer for killing the rapists, and arguing insanity —¦ regardless of the facts — is the best means to achieve that result. No character expresses faith in the system. Law and trial procedures seem inadequate to deal with the social problems raised by the case. The jury, none of whom accepts the insanity defense, finally admits what everyone has felt all along, that if the races in the case were reversed, the white killer would win acquittal. And so the jurors decide to treat Carl Lee as they would treat a white defendant. The irony here is that as the jury affirms equality of the races in court, it then disregards society's murder laws. Moral absolutes about justice do not apply in this environment. Grisham's ribald portrayal of Jake's friend Harry Rex Vonner displays what success means in the legal community: He "was a huge slob of a lawyer who specialized in nasty divorce cases and perpetually kept some jerk in jail for back child support. He was vile and vicious, and his services were in great demand by divorcing parties in Ford County. He could get the children, the house, the farm, the VCR, the microwave, everything. One wealthy farmer kept him on retainer just so the current wife couldn't hire him for the next divorce." Harry Rex gets results; in his practice, results matter much more than appeals to higher standards. Harry Rex is the sort of lawyer people hire because he effectively serves the interests of his clients. He does not serve an idealized version of how lawyers should advance the cause of justice. Lucien Wilbanks admits the moral confusion that engulfs the Hailey case when he says to Jake, "Now, you can win the case, and if you do, justice will prevail. But if you lose it, justice will also prevail. Kind of a strange case, I guess. I just wish I had it." In a morally relative universe, Lucien's comments affirm, the contest is more important than the principle.

As the novel unsettles readers in its depiction of the "justice" system at work, it offers an equally challenging portrait of race relations in the supposedly enlightened South of the 1980s. (Some readers express surprise that novel has a contemporary setting. Grisham's The Chamber [1994] refers to the Hailey case and places it in 1985.) In Ford County the races intermingle peacefully; the three-quarters white population even elects a black sheriff, Ozzie Walls. Yet awareness of racial difference permeates this society; race matters in every decision. Ozzie's elections placate the federal Justice Department and forestall investigations of local voting practices. The setting of bail in criminal cases differs depending on the race of the accused. The grand jury votes along racial lines. Selection of the foreperson of the grand jury becomes an exercise in affirmative action. Judges and prosecutors consider how their actions in the Hailey case will affect their efforts to keep the black vote. In such a tense, hyper-aware environment, the Hailey case serves as a match to a powder keg and ignites violent racial confrontations. In 1963, Martin Luther King described Mississippi as "a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression." The sobering question suggested by the novel is how much has Mississippi really changed.

Grisham daringly writes a two-page exposition of the thoughts of Lester, Carl Lee's brother, about race relations in Clanton; that is, a white author gets into the mind of a black character about the very issues that separate black and white. Having fled Mississippi for a better paying job up North, Lester feels depressed at returning to see anew the unchanging, almost unescapable poverty in which Southern blacks live. He takes the racism as a given; He is impressed by the high bails given the rapists, because people who kill or assault blacks seldom get high bails. Grisham places the racial epithet "nigger" into the speech and thoughts of many characters, white and black. The word seems to occur constantly and in all combinations: black speaking to black, white to white, black to white, and white to black. Ozzie uses it when he interrogates a white suspect, and Jake uses it when speaking to Ozzie. The redolence of the word, although potentially very disturbing for some readers, illuminates the race relations of the setting and gives the novel a sharp edge.

As Grisham takes on the issue of race relations, he likewise addresses the status of women in the New South. Women are not yet equal; they have a circumscribed, lesser place. None of the local officials or lawyers is a woman; women instead take the traditional jobs of clerk and secretary. Jake's wife is a teacher, a respectable profession for an intelligent female in this setting. He shuttles her and their daughter away for safety when the case turns ugly. When the jailed Carl Lee hears his wife complain about needing money, he tells her bluntly that he will find a way to provide and that she should mind her place. Jake's final speech to the jury asserts that daughters are different, special, a difference that explains Carl Lee's rage over the rape of his little girl — by extension Jake argues that women remain on the traditional Southern pedestal. Grisham is not being an unthinking sexist; he deliberately points to the chauvinism in contemporary Mississippi, just as he points to the racism by the use of the epithet. And into this setting, onto this pedestal, he places Ellen Roark, a half-Southern, half-Northern liberal law student who wants to assist Jake on the case. She has impressive legal talents — she does masterful research for Jake — and an alluring body, alluring more so for her refusal to wear a bra unless she is going to court. She disturbs the men because she can match them in law, and because her presence keeps reminding them of sex. Clearly Jake, who cannot fathom having a woman for a friend or a law partner, feels tempted by her. But for all her banter, she does nothing untoward (although the scene of Ellen and Jake outside the restaurant deserves discussion). She says with arch irony, "I'm a woman, and I'm in the South. I know my place." Readers have various responses to her. Some find her admirable, even judge her to be the best legal mind in the book; others will dismiss her as coarse and flirtatious. However readers take her, Grisham presents her as a specimen of modern womanhood, very unlike what the Mississippi locals expect, and thus a challenge and maybe even a role model.

Literary Precedents

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The plot skeleton of A Time to Kill recalls that of the legal classic Anatomy of a Murder (1958) by Robert Traver. Both novels concern cases of revenge killings that follow sexual assaults: In Traver's book, a military officer avenges an offense against his wife. In both cases the legal strategy is the same — argue not guilty by reason of insanity. The lawyers in both novels take the cases as a means to further their careers. And each lawyer gets valuable help from an often besotted older attorney. The machinations of the trials comprise the heart of both books. Yet Grisham approaches his material with much more ambition; Grisham's book is a deeply-thought-out social tapestry. For Grisham, the northern Mississippi setting is integral; for Traver the locale of the upper peninsula of Michigan is quaint.

Grisham's works are the most popular examples of the groundswell of fiction about the law that seemed to begin in 1987 with Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent. Both Grisham and Turow linger over the technicalities of trial procedures, and both portray how the network of relationships among those in the justice system — defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges, all who know each other well previous to the cases at hand — impact on the trial. Grisham and Turow also both challenge the reader by presenting protagonists who are often not heroic, indeed, who cross moral lines. And both authors use the trials to expose a network of corruption. Turow's setting is a northern city, and the corruption infests the city's legal and political institutions. Turow writes a mystery, and so appeals to the dark urban world of hard-boiled fiction, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. In this aspect, Turow and Grisham diverge. Grisham takes a broader approach, disclosing the faults embedded in the entire society, taking on issues of race, sex, class, and the pitfalls of the entire judicial process.

As a social commentary on the South, A Time to Kill bears comparison with the two recognized masterpieces of Southern writing about the law: Sanctuary (1931) by William Faulkner and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee. In addition to devoting considerable space to trial proceedings, these Southern novels address how the defense attorneys bond with their clients, and how the cases become for each lawyer a sacred duty. The three lawyers, however, contrast sharply. Faulkner's Horace Benbow and Lee's Atticus Finch are idealistic patricians who take difficult cases because their principles demand that they do so. In court, each is dignified and respectful of the rules. Jake, a product of the middle class, is ruthlessly practical in the conduct of his case. The trio of lawyers provides significant contrasts in views of law, opinions about their towns, resilience when faced with courtroom setbacks, and appeals to the jury. In each novel, the decision of the jury reflects profound, deeply-ingrained attitudes. Each book offers a probing and critical portrait of Southern society. Faulkner and Grisham both charge that their settings — both novels use northern Mississippi — suffer from vast corruption, from a network of evil that probably encompasses the district attorney. Pondering why the outcomes of the cases in the three novels differ opens up questions about how the South has changed over the fifty-eight years between the publications of Sanctuary and A Time to Kill.


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Grisham's open emotional attachment to his first novel rendered him shy about selling the film rights even as Hollywood's appetite for his books led in 1993 to the record setting $3.75 million sale of the rights to a book he had not yet completed (The Chamber). Finally in August 1994, Grisham allowed purchase of the rights for A Time to Kill by the team that made a version of The Client which respected the text and which earned financial success. Grisham received a staggeringly $6 million, plus some approval over casting and the script, plus the role of co-producer (along with Arnon Milchan, whose New Regency Productions would make the film for Warner Bros.), Michael Nathan, and Hunt Lovvry.

During summer 1995, director Joel Schumacher shot the film in a very cooperative Canton (obviously close in name to the fictional Clanton), Mississippi, using locals as extras. Canton happily boasted the Mississippi feature crucial to the plot: a distinctive looking courthouse situated on a square that serves as a focal point of town life. The CBS news show 48 Hours produced an hour long program on the filming, highlighting the unsettling atmosphere of shooting scenes about contemporary Southern racial strife in a real Southern town.

The film premiered in July 1996 to great success, competing well for an audience amidst more special effects-driven summer fare. The film had been heralded by numerous articles about the production and many approving profiles of Matthew McConaughey, the 25-year-old unknown who plays Jake. (The movie alerts non-Southerners that Jake's surname should be pronounced as "bri-GANCE," an example of the Southern tendency to accent second syllables.) Schumacher and Grisham reportedly clashed repeatedly over who should play the lead, finally agreeing on McConaughey, who had been cast in a supporting role and who looks a lot like Grisham. McConaughey seems to inhabit the role, and the strong acting by the entire cast is the film's greatest asset. The players include the versatile Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee; Sandra Bullock, who nicely underplays Ellen Roark even though she lacks the right hair color; and previous Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey (as Rufus Buckley) and Brenda Fricker (as Jake's secretary).

Yet Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman vary significantly from the novel even as they respect the book's basic plot. A key change involves Jake: as occurred with the muting of Mitch McDeere's ethical lapses in the film of The Firm, this movie presents Jake as an earnest greenhorn instead of a wily, self-assured gladiator. The film's Jake takes the case out of guilt for not telling Ozzie about Carl Lee's implied threats; the Jake of the novel had told Ozzie and has lots of motives to take the case, including fellow-feeling for Carl Lee and not excluding lust for fame. The film's Jake seems over-matched in court. Carl Lee has to tell him what to ask Deputy Looney; in the book Jake rehearses the testimony with the Deputy. The film's Jake desperately needs Ellen to deliver information on how to demolish the state's psychiatrist; the Jake of the book already knows how, just desires some specific research from Ellen. In the film, Jake needs pep talks from four different characters (Ellen, Lucien, his wife, and Carl Lee) before he can deliver his summation. And in that summation he delivers an apology for his rookie performance followed by the story of the rape with the races reversed. In the novel, a juror tells this story at a pivotal point in deliberations, but having already described the attack at the book's opening, Grisham resists giving her full speech. He resisted being sentimental; the movie does not resist.

The movie seeks for a wholly emotional impact whereas the novel deftly avoids becoming maudlin The movie seeks more to satisfy than to unsettle. Thus the film eschews the book's odd humor, the pounding and constant use of "nigger" by almost everybody, the shading of the "good" characters. Gone are Ozzie's legally dubious extortion of the rapist's confession, Harry Rex's procurement of the jury list, Lucien's serious consideration of bribing a juror, Carl Lee's dismissive treatment of his wife when she asks about money. Instead the film offers good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are very bad. The book's Klanners are self-important figures of dark comedy; Grisham describes the swearing-in: "Sweat dripped from their faces as they prayed fervently for the dragon to shut up with his nonsense and finish the ceremony." The film aggrandizes the Klan into a serious-minded, malevolent force. (In Delaware, local Klanners actually protested outside a theater that was showing the film.) As for the good guys, the film depicts them as hard-working and sincere. The film adds audience-pleasing scenes such as Jake's dog appearing safe amidst the ashes of Jake's house and the ending sequence of a racially inclusive picnic By rendering Jake and his friends as near paragons of virtue, the filmmakers lull the audience into forgetting that this story is about vigilantism. Indeed, the film places at the final picnic the black youth who dropped the fire bomb that killed the Klan leader; this youth is a deliberate killer, but the film seems to give him approbation by finessing the whole issue of what constitutes a murder.

More than the expected alterations and compressions inherent in any screen translation, these changes seem to reflect the film industry's notorious timidity in presenting hard-edged material for mass consumption. The good acting and strong sense of place rescue the movie; it is a superior translation than, say, the amazingly wrong-headed effort to film Tom Wolfe's scathing satire The Bonfire of the Vanities (1984-1985). Yet nor is A Time to Kill in league with the film versions of Dead Man Walking or the obvious touchstone To Kill a Mockingbird, movies which retain the disturbing and challenging spirits of their sources movies which people talk about.