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Sycamore Row, By John Grisham. Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99


Several decades ago, an author who had been hand-selling his books from the back of his car was on the point of giving up writing. But he decided to try another novel and, with The Firm, John Grisham inaugurated a career that put him at the top of the tree in crime fiction.

Grisham's legal thrillers were delivered in functional prose totally at the service of an inexorable narrative grasp. There have been fallow patches over the years, but they seem comfortably in the past, and Sycamore Row bristles with all the old authority. Grisham admirers have asked him whether he would bring back the protagonist of A Time to Kill, lawyer Jake Brigance. Here, the writer has finally acquiesced to their entreaties.

A man is found hanging from a sycamore tree. Informed that he was dying of cancer, Seth Hubbard has put his affairs in order and dispatched a new will to be executed. This document overrides the previous one, provocatively cutting out his relatives and settling his estate on a new beneficiary. But the late Hubbard was well aware that his will would instigate an acrimonious courtroom battle and even have repercussions within the community when it is discovered that his considerable fortune has been left to his maid, also his carer.

The attorney selected to deal with this hottest of hot potatoes is Jake Brigance, still smarting from the ruinous case described in the earlier book and in need of a high-profile, remunerative job to put him back on the map. But Jake is to regret taking on the Hubbard affair. And a secret in the dead man's past that will change lives forever becomes a very urgent issue; who will uncover it first?

As with earlier books by Grisham, what we are given here is the purest of unvarnished storytelling. Grisham has no truck with any studied elegance of style; he is more in touch with the strategies played out in the books of such predecessors as Erle Stanley Gardner and his dogged attorney, Perry Mason. But he knows that modern readers require a conflicted, multifaceted hero, and that he provides in Jake Brigance. It's good to see the troubled attorney back.