Book Review: A Time to Kill (by
This is a highly entertaining, yet at the same time horrifying crime novel which subtly explores the themes of racism, murder, revenge and punishment while keeping the reader involved and interested until the very end. It is set in Canton, Mississippi in 1995 at a time when one would hope that the racial issues of the mid twentieth century had, to an extent, dissipated and the racism which had previously been so extreme, particularly in the southern American states, had become tempered by tolerance.
The horror begins on the first page when a ten-year-old girl is brutally raped by two white males. The repulsive details leave the reader clenching his fists and apprehensive to read on. The novel takes a dramatic turn when the girl’s father Carl Lee Hailey decides that the only justice these two rednecks should receive is death and takes the matter into his own hands; shooting both rednecks dead. The Hailey case quickly receives national attention as Carl Lee faces the shocking possibility of the death penalty. The contemporary issues raised in this novel produce a feeling of recognition, and the horror of the story is exacerbated by the feeling of unwilling and reluctant awareness of the genuine possibility that the story could be real.
A major contemporary sociological issue raised by this novel is that of racism. ‘A Time to Kill’ shows the awful reality of discrimination, highlighted by the details of the reaction of the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in people’s lawns and committed acts of vandalism, destruction of property and physical violence against the people whom they saw supporting Carl Lee Hailey, such as not only his lawyer Mr. Brigance but Mr. Brigance’s elderly assistant and her husband. Parallels can be drawn with this novel and everyday real crime, as, in modern society, witnesses of criminal acts or people involved in important trials are often targeted, either to prevent them giving evidence or as acts of revenge, and many modern countries have been forced to set up witness protection schemes.
. The theme of racism is also subtly explored in this novel through a number of references to the divide between white and black people at the time. For example, Carl Lee Hailey makes it clear that he appointed his lawyer, Jake Brigance, as he believed that the inherent racism in Jake, a white man, would make it easier for Jake to appeal to the jury on their own terms and thus give him his best possible chance of surviving in what he saw as a white-dominated society.
Therefore, John Grisham’s novel is largely about racially motivated crime, i.e. the ten-year old black girl who was raped at the start was raped partly because she was black and thus seen in the eyes of the white rapists as inferior and as an easy target, and the huge controversy surrounding the Hailey case was, as is made obvious in the novel, not to do with the fairly major fact that two young men were dead, but rather more to do with the fact that Carl Lee Hailey; a black man, had killed Billy Ray Cobb and James Lewis Willard; two white men. However running parallel with this is the theme of punishment. Carl Lee Hailey’s actions came about, not only because we wanted revenge on the men who had attacked his little girl and in doing so taken away her innocence, but because he was terrified, horrified and furious that there was a distinct possibility that they would not be punished at all; that they would walk free.
This novel therefore raises interesting questions about punishment in contemporary society. For example, questions can be raised such as ‘Is it ever right to imprison some people for crimes but not others?’ and ‘Should the death penalty be used as punishment for the worst types of crime such as rape and murder?’
Having considered the key themes of the novel in relation to their social context and contemporary society, it is interesting to consider why the novel was written and why the criminals and characters in the story had the roles that they did. Obviously, at face value, the novel was written to entertain the public and ultimately sell. Thus, in order to get large readership, John Grisham has explored only the most shocking and scandalous crimes such as racism and murder in his novel instead of more mundane everyday crimes such as criminal damage and or white collar crimes, as these have a smaller demographic. Criminologist John Ferrell would argue that this is because ‘popular culture itself is itself frequently criminalised’. By this he means that people are fascinated by crime and see crime fiction as a chance to experience crime without actually putting themselves in danger.
Finally, the role and function of institutions of power such as the police and courts is also explored in this novel and can be related to real life. In the novel, the police and courts, as in real life, have power to detain and decide on the punishment of criminals. Both the courts and police are bound by rules and practises and have to prove without reasonable doubt to a jury that a crime has been committed in order to get a conviction. However, despite the fact that most of the police follow their duty in the novel (with the notable exception of a Ku Klux Klan spy) an important moral dilemma is raised when a policeman shot by accident by Carl Lee Hailey when he gunned down the rapists spoke out and said that he didn’t believe that Carl Lee should be punished for his crime, justifying himself by admitting that if those boys had raped his daughter he would have done the exact same thing.
The title of the novel demonstrates the question which John Grisham is exploring throughout his book. Is there ever a justifiable ‘time to kill’ and if so, how does one judge when? Also, can one ever escape the prejudices of the justice system? To both these questions, I would suggest that Grisham responds with an emphatic, “Yes”.