Wednesday, June 16, 2010

To Kill a Mocking Bird: 50th Anniversary Edition

Lee Harper's only novel " To Kill a Mocking Bird" has just completed 50 years in print.
A good time to share our thoughts on two other books - John Grisham's "A Time to Kill" and Mark Gimenez's "The Color of Law"  

You may ask why? Here's why. Because if imitation is the best form of flattery, both these books imitate and flatter with good results.But we are getting ahead of ourselves here.

First things first - a quick recap of Harper Lee's classic.

Set in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s and the Great Depression, it is as much a story of racism as it is about growing up. Atticus, a white lawyer is asked to defend a black man Tom Robinson accused of raping a nineteen year old white girl Mayella Ewell. In 1930 America in the deep south, a black man getting acquitted for an alleged crime against a white man was unheard of - but Atticus fights on bravely risking his life and the lives of his two children Jeremy Finch (Jem for short) and Jem's young sister Jean Louise Finch (everyone calls her Scout).

We are not going to review this book except to say that for all those of you who have read and re-read this book, you know what happens in the end.

For those who have not yet read this classic, what have you been reading so far?

Many readers believe The Firm to be Grisham’s best book but we believe that it is in A Time to Kill that you find Grisham at his best.

Here's a quick summary.

Ten year old Tonya Lee (notice the surname) is raped by two white men and left for dead. Her father Vietnam war veteran Carl Lee is sure that in Clanton, Mississippi no jury will ever hang a white man for a crime against a black. So, he takes his gun and shoots the two rapists even as they are being taken to court. Then he goes and gets himself a white lawyer Jake Brigance to defend him. And the town goes mad and breaks into two - the blacks certain that Carl Lee deserves to be freed while a large section of the whites want Carl Lee hung for murder.

Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, there is no suspense or mystery here. Both the rape and the murders take place right at the beginning of the book and the entire plot is about Brigance trying his best to defend Carl Lee against the advise and judgement of friends, neighbours and family.

Despite being clearly inspired, this is a truly outstanding piece of work by Grisham. The writing has a raw energy to it, the dialogues are fiery and the courtroom scenes simply rock (An abiding image in the movie of this book are the crowds outside the courtroom holding two sets of placards - Free Carl Lee and Fry Carl Lee). The climax is wonderful and you should grab a copy if you haven’t read this book before.

Mark Gimenez is supposed to be the new John Grisham and he more than lives up to this billing in his first book "The Color of Law" inspired of course by Lee Harper's classic but there are enough shades of A Time to Kill as well.

Make no mistake, it is an inspired book and Gimenez acknowledges this as much right through but is still a good read on its own.

Scott A Fenney (no prizes for guessing what A stands for), a successful Dallas lawyer has everything - high paying career, trophy wife, smart daughter (shades of Scout), big mansion, top car, club membership and the last thing he wants is to be asked to defend pro-bono a black prostitute Shawanda Jones accused of murdering a white young Clark McCall, the son of a senator and Presidential hopeful. Trouble begins when Jones refuses to plead guilty and Fenney is forced to actually defend her in a trial that forces him to risk his career and life and seek justice.

Brilliantly written, the plot is absorbing and once again culminates in a fantastic courtroom drama in the best traditions of Perry Mason mysteries.

As you can see, all three books have a common theme - white lawyer defending a black accused for an alleged crime against a white person. All end up as courtroom trials but with different endings.

We all have our biases and we can be forgiven for thinking that To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant book (which it is) and the other two are poor rip-offs (which they are not).

Both Grisham and Gimenez have clearly spent time and effort in polishing their writing and plotline to make sure that despite comparisons which were sure to be made with Lee Harper, their books manage to stand up and be counted more than adequately.

Which in a way is the best compliment we can pay To Kill a Mockingbird as it celebrates 50 years as unarguably one of the greats fiction books ever written.


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