Since 1989, when John Grisham published his debut novel, A Time To Kill, this lawyer-turned-writer has been consistently brilliant. Aside from his YA Theodore Boone novels, I've read everything he's published. And whether the book was about tragic baseball careers (Calico Joe), washed-up football stars landing in Italy (Playing for Pizza) or even a middle-aged couple's ill-fated attempt to skip Christmas, the books have been sublimely readbale and I've enjoyed all of them.
Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers, of course, a series launched by A Time To Kill, which despite some of the brilliant novels that have followed, remains perhaps the very best, a mesmerising tale of prejudice, violence and bravery in Ford County, Mississippi, the deepest well of the deep south.
So when Sycamore Row arrived, promising a return to Ford County and a reacquaintance with litigator Jake Brigance, the fighting-for-the-underdog template for so many a Grisham hero since, I was genuinely excited.
And there's a reason why I've lavished so much praise on Grisham above - and that's because I don't want anybody to think that what follows is somehow intellectual or literary snobbery about a popular writer. It isn't. I love Grisham's books and I will continue to look forward to them.
But Sycamore Row, I'm afraid, is a bit of a stinker. Reading it was a strange experience. Usually I race through Grisham, but this was a slow process and it took me a while to figure out why: I was bored.
At 440 pages it's about 180 pages too long, and in the middle it drifts drearily, following a series of sub-plots and legal arguments that add very little to the story. At the same time the likely conclusion of the story is signalled too early, and sufficiently clearly that most readers will probably spot it. I rarely give up on a book before I've finished it, but came close with this one, pressing on because I trust Grisham to deliver.
The plot itself provides all the ingredients for a classic Grisham thriller. An elderly man, suffering from terminal cancer, takes his own life, leaving behind a handwritten will that bestows his great fortune on his black housekeeper, while cutting his family out entirely. A letter accompanying the will appoints Jake Brigance counsel and tasks him with defending it to the hilt. The cast too was arranged perfectly, a colourful circus of small town folk from patrician judges to court house bruisers, rednecks from central casting and a coffee shop chorus commenting on every step of the trial.
Sitting at the explosive inter-section of money and race, I expected the plot to take off, but it never quite did. While the prose had Grisham's usual languid articulacy, there was too little pace to the story, and during some moments I wondered if it hadn't been written with a television serial in mind as it often felt like a succession of vignettes each with their own beginning and end rather than a single coherent work.
And so ultimately, Sycamore Row was a disappointment, perhaps particularly so because the return of Jake Brigance in such promising circumstances held so much potential.