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 with another novel, and with The Firm, John Grisham inaugurated a career that put him at the top of the tree in the crime fiction stakes. Grisham’s legal thrillers were delivered in functional, unsophisticated 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 The Firm, lawyer Jake Brigance, and here the writer has finally acquiesced to the entreaties of his admirers.

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, who was 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, with hostile relatives and crooked lawyers making his life hell. 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 John Grisham, what we are given here is the purest of unvarnished storytelling. Grisham has no truck with studied elegance of style (even though Faulkner is buried in his DNA); 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 Grisham 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.

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99

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