A Summary of "A Time to Kill" by John Grisham

by Kay Ireland

In one of his most graphic and haunting novels to date, John Grisham's "A Time to Kill" questions whether or not murder is ever completely justified. Tackling themes such as race and class, "A Time to Kill" offers a snapshot of the changing social and political landscape of Mississippi in the late 1970s through early 1990s. The book became a bestseller and was later made into 1996 movie with Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson in the main roles.


"A Time to Kill" opens in small-town Clanton, Miss. Clanton is also featured in some of Grisham's other novels, including "The Last Juror." The novel is set in the mid-1980s, when the political landscape was changing along the Bible Belt. The end of segregation prompted the outrage of white supremacists, causing a rash of crimes against African-Americans. Grisham successfully paints a picture of a town where blacks were meek and afraid of loose-cannon whites.


In a graphic opening scene, Carl Lee Hailey's 10-year-old daughter Tonya is raped by two white supremacists, James Louis "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb. They are apprehended and brought to trial for the crime, but, afraid that they'll go free, Carl takes the law into his own hands, opening fire and killing both men in the courtroom. What follows is the trial of Carl for first-degree murder. The lawyer who takes the case, Jake Tyler Brigance, is harassed for protecting his client and friend, which leads to the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan.


Jake is constantly harassed for his involvement in the case, resulting in the burning of a cross on his front lawn, prompting his wife and daughter to leave town. Friends plead with Jake to assign the case to someone else, but Jake's own daughter serves as inspiration to give justice to Tonya. The climax of the novel is the harrowing trial that the book centers upon, during which Jake argues for his client to be found not guilty based on the circumstances alone. Eventually, the jury agrees and Carl is able to leave the courthouse a free man.


It's clear that Grisham meant "A Time to Kill" to be a commentary on racism and the religious, social and political environment of the South. The idea that African-Americans are second-class citizens or somehow less worthy of American justice is challenged when Carl Bailey acts as both the protagonist and the antagonist. In the end, the novel examines what happens when the law isn't enough justice for a horrific deed and the role of citizens in upholding American ideals and protections.

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