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A Time to Kill (Grisham novel)

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Language  English
Publication date  1989
ISBN  0-440-21172-7
Author  John Grisham
Adaptations  A Time to Kill (1996)

Publisher  Wynwood Press
Pages  515 pp
Originally published  1989
Genre  Legal thriller
Country  United States of America
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Media type  Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Characters  Jake Tyler Brigance, Carl Lee Hailey, Tonya Hailey, Billy Ray Cobb, Sheriff Ozzie Walls
Similar  Works by John Grisham, Legal thriller books, Murder books

A Time to Kill is a 1989 legal suspense thriller by John Grisham. It was Grisham's first novel. The novel was rejected by many publishers before Wynwood Press (located in New York) 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. This made Grisham extremely popular among readers.


In 1996, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson. In 2011, it was further adapted into a stage play of the same name by Rupert Holmes. The stage production opened at the Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.) in May 2011 and opened on Broadway in October 2013.


The story takes place in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, in the 1980s; a period of time where racial tension was heavily prevalent within America. This setting is also featured in other John Grisham novels. Three of the characters, Jake Brigance, Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks, later appear in the 2013 sequel Sycamore Row. 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. A brief reference to the events depicted in the book is also contained in Grisham's 1994 novel The Chamber.


In 1984 at the De Soto County courthouse in Hernando, Grisham witnessed the harrowing testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. The inspiration came from the case of the rape and assault of 12 year old Marcie Scott and her 16 year old sister Julie Scott. Unlike Grisham's depiction, however, the Scotts were white and their assailant, Willie Harris, was black. 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." 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. This book is set in 1984. Another stated inspiration was the success of Presumed Innocent.

Plot summary

In the small town of Clanton, in Ford County, Mississippi, a ten-year-old African-American girl named Tonya Hailey is viciously raped and beaten by two redneck white supremacists, James "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb. Tonya is later found and rushed to a hospital while Pete and Billy Ray are heard bragging in a roadside bar about their crime. Tonya's distraught and 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 Carl Lee 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 from their bond hearing, he kills both men with an M-16.

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 Brigance. Helping Jake are two loyal friends, disbarred attorney 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 and in any way he legally can. Carl Lee is prosecuted by Ford County's corrupt 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 elements. This proves true when, despite having no history of racist inclinations in his rulings, Noose refuses Jake's perfectly reasonable request for a change of venue, even though the racial make-up of Ford County virtually guarantees an all-white jury.

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. On the day the trial begins, a riot erupts between the KKK and the area's black residents outside of the courthouse; Stump is killed by a molotov cocktail. Believing that the black people are at fault for Stump's death, Freddy and the KKK increase their attacks. As a result, the National Guard is called to Clanton to keep the peace during Carl Lee's trial. Undeterred, Freddy continues his efforts to get revenge for Billy Ray's death. 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. They continue to burn crosses throughout Clanton. Later, they burn down Jake's house.

Despite the loss of his house and several setbacks at the start of the trial, Jake perseveres. Jake 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 multiple 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. Jake follows this up with a captivating closing statement. After lengthy deliberations, the jury acquits Carl Lee by reason of temporary insanity. Carl Lee returns to his family, and the story ends with Jake, Lucien, and Harry Rex having a celebratory drink before Jake is to hold a press conference and leave town to reunite with his family.


  • The 1996 Joel Schumacher film A Time to Kill starring Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey is based on this novel.
  • A theatre adaptation, based on this novel, was written by Rupert Holmes, directed by Ethan McSweeny and presented by Daryl Roth/Arena Stage at the Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. in 2011.
  • The Rupert Holmes adaptation opened on Broadway on October 20, 2013 at the Golden Theatre, directed by McSweeny. The cast featured Tom Skerritt, Patrick Page and Tonya Pinkins. The production closed on November 17, 2013.
  • Sequel

    A sequel novel, titled Sycamore Row, was released on October 22, 2013.


    A Time to Kill (Grisham novel) Wikipedia