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A Time to Kill (Grisham novel)

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A Time to Kill
First edition's cover
AuthorJohn Grisham
GenreLegal thriller
PublisherWynwood Press
Publication date
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages672 pp
Followed bySycamore Row 

A Time to Kill is a 1989 legal thriller and debut novel by American author John Grisham. The novel was rejected by many publishers before Wynwood Press eventually gave it a 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.


The story takes place in the fictional town of Clanton, in the equally fictional Ford County, Mississippi. This setting is also featured in other John Grisham novels. A passage in The Chamber reveals that the events of A Time to Kill took place in 1984.[1]

Three of the characters, Jake Brigance, Harry Rex Vonner, and Lucien Wilbanks, later appear in two sequel novels, 2013's Sycamore Row and 2020's A Time for Mercy. 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.


Grisham has described the book as "very autobiographical" in that the novel's "young attorney is basically me" and the drama is based on a case he witnessed.[2] In 1984 Grisham witnessed the harrowing testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim at the DeSoto County courthouse in Hernando, Mississippi.[3] Two sisters, Julie Scott, 16 years old, and Marcie Scott, her twelve-year-old sister, had both been raped, brutally beaten, and nearly murdered by Willie James Harris.[4] Unlike Grisham's depiction, however, the Scotts were white and their assailant was black.[5]

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."[3] 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.[citation needed] Another stated inspiration was the success of Presumed Innocent.[6]


In the small town of Clanton, in fictional Ford County, Mississippi, a ten-year-old African-American girl named Tonya Hailey is violently raped by two neo-Confederates, James "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, shortly after stealing a Confederate Flag from a local college exhibition. 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 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 M16 rifle.

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 and mentor 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 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 element--a fact given further credence when, despite having no history of racist inclinations in his rulings, Noose refuses Jake's request for a change of venue, even though the racial make-up of Ford County virtually guarantees an all-white jury, which later becomes the case.

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. They also burn crosses in the yards of potential jurors to intimidate them. On the day the trial begins, a riot erupts between the KKK and the area's black residents outside the courthouse; Stump is killed by a Molotov cocktail. Believing that the black people are at fault for Stump's death, the KKK increase their attacks. As a result, the National Guard is called to Clanton to keep the peace during Carl Lee's trial. 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. Soon after, Ellen Roark is abducted and assaulted. They burn down Jake's house. During trial deliberations, the jury's spokesman is threatened by a KKK member with a knife. Eventually, they torture and murder "Mickey Mouse", one of Jake's former clients who had infiltrated the KKK and subsequently gave anonymous tips to the police, allowing them to anticipate most KKK attacks.

Despite the loss of his house and several setbacks at the start of the trial, Jake perseveres. He 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, at which point the flustered doctor blurts out "You just can't trust juries,"--thus alienating the jury he was testifying to. Jake follows this up with a captivating closing statement, ignoring Lucien's advice to use a pre-prepared statement he had written for Jake.

On the day of the verdict, tens of thousands of black citizens gather in town and demand Carl Lee's acquittal. After a long and contentious deliberation, in which the jurors have to contend with one particularly racist member of the panel who openly insists on using the "N"-word routinely during the deliberations, a unanimous acquittal by reason of temporary insanity is finally achieved when one of the jurors asks the others to seriously imagine that Carl Lee and his daughter were white and that the murdered rapists were black, and polling the jury by secret ballot on the question of whether they would kill the rapists in such a case. After finding this question to be answered with a unanimous "yes," the jury finally acknowledges that they must hold a black father to the same, equal standard of justice and mercy. 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 leaves town to reunite with his family.



Two sequel novels involving the same characters and setting have been published. The first, titled Sycamore Row, was published on October 22, 2013, and the second, A Time for Mercy, was published in October 2020.[11]


  1. ^ John Grisham, The Chamber, Doubleday, 1994, p.251
  2. ^ Grisham, John (April 15, 1992). "John Grisham describes leaving law to write and shares the inspirations for his novels". The Charlie Rose Show (Interview). Interviewed by Charlie Rose. New York City: PBS.
  3. ^ a b "John Grisham: The Official Site - Bio". Retrieved 2011-11-27.
  4. ^ Mitchell, Jerry. "A 'cold blooded' crime in Mississippi inspired 'A Time To Kill,' John Grisham says". The Clarion-Ledger. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  5. ^ "Harris v. State of Mississippi". Retrieved 2016-08-29.
  6. ^ DuChateau, Christian (2011-10-28). "Grisham talks ambulance chasers, eBooks". CNN. Retrieved 2011-10-30.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "'A Time to Kill' Broadway". Playbillvault.com. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  11. ^ "John Grisham sequel to 'A Time to Kill' to be published". Entertainment Weekly. May 1, 2013. Retrieved October 15, 2021.

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