The Reckoning is the first John Grisham novel I’ve read. Besides Agatha Christie, I haven’t read much murder mysteries at all, because I always thought those books were not for me. I bought The Reckoning as a gift for my boyfriend when I flew to Kenya. On my first flight on that journey, I decided to give the book a try. I am sure that I am not the only bookworm who reads books bought as presents before giving it. From the moment I started until this moment, two weeks later, I’ve been reading this book like a madwoman. Part of The Reckoning is set in the Philippines during the Second World War and part of it is set in the deep South of the USA a few years after the war.
The Reckoning centres around the Banning family. They have been a respected cotton-farming family for many generations in the town of Clanton, Mississippi. That is, until the day Pete Banning, the patriarch of the family, gets up, goes to town and kills the beloved Methodist priest Dexter Bell. He hands himself over to the police but refuses to give a motive for the murder. His two children Stella and Joel, his sister Florry and his wife Liza are all distraught by what happened. They try to ask Pete why he killed the priest, but he refuses to tell them as well. What follows is a story that alternates between courtroom scenes regarding Pete’s trial and the aftermath of that. These scenes are alternated by stories of how the Banning family copes with the murder and trial and how they try to build back a life. In the middle of the book, the story moves to the Philippines where we learn about what happened to Pete during the war.
Pete started as a cavalier soldier during the war. After that, he became a Japanese prisoner of war when the Americans surrendered. Eventually, he escapes and becomes a guerrilla fighter in the jungle of the Philippines where he spends most of his war years. In this part of the book, we also learn more about Pete and Liza’s marriage and how it changed after the war. Pete hasn’t told his family anything about what happened to him during the war. Likewise, he knows little of his family’s life at home at that time. The Banning family is not used to talk about anything that happens to them. This brings a lot of questions, such as why did Pete kill the priest? What is the role of the priest in the disintegration of Pete’s and Liza’s marriage? Do Pete’s employees know the truth? And there are many more questions like this. All these questions together form the bigger mystery of the book, which is slowly unravelled in the book by revealing what happened in the Philippines and what happened at home. This ends in the conclusion where the mystery might or might not be revealed. I won’t spoil that for you. I can only say that I was thoroughly satisfied with the ending.
The question of whether the mystery will be revealed or not is one thing that made the book exciting to me. Most of the book I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to know the answers. The Banning family is known for their secrecy, so I feared it might feel unrealistic if all the mysteries would be revealed. Also, sometimes it is best if not all secrets are revealed in a murder mystery, so the book keeps you wondering. However, I also really wanted to know what happened. This book keeps you wondering in a good way. A big part of the book doesn’t even talk about the mystery directly but is about the life of all the characters. The connection between all the characters and the murder is not immediately clear either. I liked that Grisham spends a lot of time introducing all the characters because that gives us readers the opportunity to theorize about the mystery ourselves.
Overall, I loved this book, however, it is also very long-winded at certain points. There is too much detail about things such as particulars about the trial. It didn’t surprise me at all when I discovered John Grisham is a lawyer, seeing all the details he puts in those scenes. The level of detail gave the book a realistic vibe, but to me, it felt excessive. Another way Grisham stretches the word count in this novel is by repeating the explanations of certain things or concepts every time it’s mentioned. For example, communication is done through a phone system called ‘the rural party line’. This means that neighbours on the same line can listen in to conversations at will, making sensitive discussions public rather than private. This, Grisham explains every time the term ‘rural party line’ is used. To me, it would have been better if Grisham realized his readers understand the concept after the first time it is mentioned.
The easy writing style and the structure of the book compensate for the repetition in the book: reading never feels like a chore and you can read for hours without getting tired. Also, Grisham gives clues to the mystery at the right moments: when my attention started to slack, I found out something new. Still, the book is longer than necessary. I am not saying that every book should be as short as possible, because reading is as much about the pleasure of turning the pages as it is about finishing books. However, an author should take care not to bore or annoy its readers with too many repetitions.
All in all, I enjoyed my first John Grisham novel a lot. Especially because about two thirds through the book I had expansive theories of what happened and why Pete killed the priest. And I am delighted to say that I was partly correct! This puzzling out the mystery and being right helped a lot to enjoy the book. The Reckoning is recommendable for everyone who loves a murder mystery written in an accessible writing styles and with enough clues to figure out part of the mystery yourself. At the end of this review, I must conclude that murder mysteries are my kind of books after all. Do you have any recommendations of what to read next?
Sherlock Holmes award for giving us a murder mystery where everyone can figure out some of the clues themselves and feel smart.
John Grisham, The Reckoning (New York, 2018)
Bella G. Bear