Thirty-one years have passed in the real world since we were first in Clanton, but only five in its fictional life. (How satisfying to see time plodding along at its own pace, back in those sleepy days before smartphones or the internet.) Jake is still living with the repercussions of the earlier murder trial. Once again, he is broke; once again, he takes on a case nobody else wants; once again, he finds himself saddled with a client whose excellent reasons for committing murder do not change the fact that he is indeed guilty.
Grisham lays out the grisly back story in the tense opening pages. A sheriff’s deputy comes home drunk and violent, and proceeds to beat his girlfriend unconscious while her two teenage children cower upstairs. As she lies there, apparently dead, her 16-year-old son, Drew, grabs the cop’s gun and kills him in a fit of fury and fear. He’s charged with capital murder, which carries the death penalty. Clanton reserves a special level of hatred for cop killers.
Jake knows that no good can come of his decision to represent Drew. He is already tens of thousands of dollars in debt, Drew’s family is indigent, and the work will pay next to nothing. Half the town, including the entire law-enforcement community, is furious at him. In the diner where he eats breakfast, longstanding acquaintances turn their backs.
But the judge in the case, with the Dickensian name of Omar Noose, all but orders him to go ahead. “The situation can get dicey and needs a steady hand,” the judge says. “I trust you, Jake, and that’s why I’m asking you to step in.”
The trial doesn’t come until three-quarters of the way through the book. This is a leisurely story, told by a master of plotting and pacing, and there’s no use in him or us rushing our way through it. Grisham puts us inside the heads not just of Jake and Drew, but also of an extended cast of characters — the lawyers, the cops, the prosecutors, the relatives, Judge Noose, Jake’s informal team of advisers. Clanton is a complicated town, a community of old grudges and deep connections driven by forces like race, class, religion, politics and family. Grisham helps us understand, if not quite sympathize with, most everyone in the book.