Small Characters, Big Parts: An Appreciation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill

How does that old theater saying go? “There are no small parts…”

Set in small-town Mississippi and published in 1989, John Grisham’s first novel revolves around the trial of an African-American father who kills two white supremacists that raped his ten-year-old daughter. It’s a classic of the legal thriller genre, the “Grisham book” that even snootier readers will keep on their shelves. But despite the gripping premise, the storylines are drawn too sharply to give the story real literary ambiguity: Grisham’s unrepentant rapists are so vile, so lacking in any redeeming qualities—they kick the little girl until her jaw breaks, and that’s just for starters—that we can only feel justice being done when Carl Lee blows them away on the steps of the courthouse. From that point on, the central question of A Time to Kill is whether Carl Lee’s attorney can wrangle out an acquittal by reason of temporary insanity. The deeper issues of justice versus vigilantism aren’t explored because the book doesn’t present any gray areas of vigilantism—only the best possible instance of it. And the story’s examination of race in the Southern justice system, circa 1980, doesn’t go much further than postulating the obvious: a white man avenging the rape of his daughter at the hands of African-Americans would have a much easier go of it.

Let’s be fair, though: Grisham set out to write a pot-boiling legal thriller with courtroom pyrotechnics, not Crime and Punishment. He said as much in 2009, telling The Telegraph that he knows what he does “is not literature” and that his objective “is to get the reader to feel impelled to turn the pages as quickly as possible.” In other words, he focuses on plot and suspense. “If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people’s character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.” Indeed, the characters of A Time to Kill, while all believable, mostly just serve the plot and play their parts correctly: lawyers do lawyer things, judges do judge things, and Klan thugs do thuggish things. But there are two exceptions: Cat Bruster and Claude the barbecue chef, two small (non-legal) characters that transcend mere correctness and, for a few moments, make the novel a little more than just a great legal thriller.

Cat Bruster, Carl Lee’s old war buddy and now a rich pimp and gun smuggler, not only provides the gun Carl Lee uses to kill the rapists, but the novel’s peak moment of literary complexity. When Carl Lee asks Bruster to get him a fully-automatic M-16 rifle—“illegal as hell”—Bruster doesn’t even flinch. Of course he’ll do it, and for free: Carl Lee saved his life in Vietnam. Why does Carl Lee want the gun? Bruster doesn’t care—doesn’t even ask. That is friendship, something that transcends legality and morality. And when Carl Lee uses the rifle to murder the men who raped his little girl, we’re forced to remember that the gun came from a man who pimps out girls for a living. Savor that for a moment. Later, after Carl Lee rejects Bruster’s generous offer of a free lawyer, a sleazy grandstander known for getting guilty criminals off the hook, Bruster accepts the decision—but does not offer to pay for Carl Lee’s choice of attorney: young Jake Brigance, the novel’s hero and Carl Lee’s best chance of being acquitted. That is complexity. That is character. (Bruster, by the way, didn’t even make it into the respectable film version of A Time to Kill.)

Then there’s Claude, the human Mason-Dixon Line, owner of a local barbecue joint who dishes out warnings that a customer’s twenty allotted minutes are up: time to “pay and leave so he could sell more barbecue.” When the town becomes thronged with reporters covering the trial, it’s Claude’s place that separates the locals from the outsiders, with Claude berating “silly fools” who ask for steak knives and gasp! chef salads. “Eat barbecue or leave.” And Claude’s restaurant provides the setting—of course—for Brigance to tell a reporter from New York that there’s as much racism up there as in Mississippi. When the reporter bristles that Southern schools were integrated only by court order, Brigance bites back. “But you’ve conveniently ignored your own schools and neighborhoods, your own voting irregularities, your own all-white juries and city councils. We were wrong, and we’ve paid dearly for it. But we learned, and although the change has been slow and painful, at least we’re trying. Y’all are still pointing fingers.” (In Grisham’s later novels, he tends to preach against the U.S. criminal justice system, the prison system, political and judicial corruption—but Brigance’s rejoinder in Claude’s restaurant isn’t preachy: it’s heartfelt, alive and apt.)

First published in a small run of 5,000 copies, A Time to Kill was ignored until Grisham’s next three novels became walloping hits, at which point it was re-released in 1993 to bestselling sales. “This one came from the heart,” Grisham wrote in a preface to the second edition, and in the age of digitized books and infinite storage capacity, it’s got a fair chance of sticking around for a while, more so than any of his other novels. Still, just because we may be able to read A Time to Kill fifty or a hundred years from now doesn’t mean we will. The legal thriller genre is crowded and cutthroat: who knows what’ll happen when Grisham himself isn’t around to defend his shelf space? But for now, at least, snooty readers of A Time to Kill can still savor Cat and Claude: big actors who stepped onto the page and played their small parts to the hilt—and, for a couple of moments, distracted Grisham enough for him to do some literature.

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