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A Time to Kill is a 1989 legal suspense thriller by John Grisham. Grisham's first novel, it was rejected by many publishers before Wynwood Press eventually gave it a modest 5,000-copy printing. After The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client became bestsellers, interest in A Time to Kill grew; the book was republished by Doubleday in hardcover and, later, by Dell Publishing in paperback, and itself became a bestseller. In 1996 the novel was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson.

Setting

The story takes place in the fictional town of Clanton in Mississippi, which has also featured in other John Grisham novels. Two of the characters, Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks, later 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.

Inspiration

In 1984 at the De Soto County courthouse in Hernandomarker, Grisham witnessed the harrowing testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. According to Grisham's official website, Grisham used his spare time to begin work on his first novel, which "explored what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants." 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

Plot summary

In Clanton, Mississippi, 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is viciously raped and beaten by two white racists -- James Louis "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb. Shortly thereafter, Tonya is found and rushed to a hospital, while Pete and Billy Ray are heard bragging in a roadside bar about what they did to Tonya.

Tonya's distraught and enraged father, Carl Lee Hailey, recalls a similar case from the year before, in which four white men raped a black girl in a nearby town and were acquitted. Carl Lee is determined not to allow that to happen in this case. Consequently, while Deputy DeWayne Powell Looney is escorting Pete and Billy Ray up a flight of stairs inside the courthouse, Carl Lee emerges from a nearby closet with an assault rifle and kills Pete and Billy Ray and wounds Looney, resulting in the amputation of his leg. (During the trial Looney forgives Hailey, saying he has a daughter himself, and that if someone raped her, he would gladly do the same as Carl Lee.)

Carl Lee is later arrested at his home by black sheriff Ozzie Walls (who must uphold the law but privately supports what Carl Lee did and gives him special treatment while in prison) and charged with capital murder. Despite the efforts of the NAACP and his old military friend Cat to persuade Carl Lee to retain their high-powered attorneys, Carl Lee elects to be represented by his friend Jake Tyler Brigance. Helping Jake on the case are his former boss Lucien Wilbanks (who has since been disbarred for his involvement in a fight resulting from a union strike, but still consults and aides Jake from the background), his friend, the sleazy divorce lawyer Harry Rex Vonner, and law student Ellen Roark, who has prior experience with death penalty cases. The prosecuting attorney is a man named Rufus Buckley, a corrupt shark with no concern or respect for ethics and with sky high political ambitions, hoping to win the case so as to gain the publicity that a win would generate, in hopes of being elected to a higher public office (governor). To annoy Buckley and call attention to this fact, Jake often addresses the D.A. as "governor" in pre-trial conferences. The judge who will preside over the trial is white (but generally impartial) judge Omar "Ichabod" Noose. It is implied, however, that Noose has been intimidated, both politically and criminally, to the point that he refuses Jake's perfectly reasonable request for a change of venue, further handicapping the defense, as the racial make-up of Ford County virtually guarantees an all-white jury.

At the same time, Billy Ray Cobb's brother, Freddy Lee Cobb, is seeking revenge for Carl Lee's killing of his brother. To this end, Freddy enlists the help of the Mississippi branch of the KKK, which is led by Mississippi grand dragon Stump Sisson. Subsequently, a KKK member attempts to plant a bomb under Jake's porch (at which point Jake sends his wife and daughter out of town to his wife's parents' home until the trial is over and begins spending most nights either in his office or at Lucien's house), and Jake's secretary Ethel Twitty and her frail husband Bud are attacked by the KKK, killing Bud. On the day the trial begins, there is a riot outside the court building between the KKK and the area's black residents, and Stump Sisson is killed by a molotov cocktail. Believing that the black people were at fault, Freddy and the KKK increase their attacks. They begin to burn crosses throughout Clanton, and Jake's house is burnt down while Jake is sleeping at Lucien's. As a result, the National Guard is called to Clanton to keep the peace during the trial. Undeterred, Freddy continues his efforts to get revenge for Billy Ray's death.

The case proceeds, and in the end, Jake presents a powerful closing statement. After lengthy deliberations during which a massive pro-acquittal demonstration is held, the jury acquits Carl Lee by reason of temporary insanity. Carl Lee returns to his family, and the story ends with Jake drinking margaritas with Lucien and Harry in his office, then descending to face the mob of reporters waiting for him.

One major difference between the novel and the film adaptation is the powerful closing argument. In the film, the visual and graphic story is told by Jake Brigance. However, in the book, Jake and Harry Rex discover through a post trial interview that a woman in the jury made that speech during jury deliberations.

Adaptations



References

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