While serving two terms as a state representative in the Mississippi Legislature, John Grisham heard a story about two prominent men living in a small town in the 1930s. That story forms the main plot in Grisham’s latest mystery, The Reckoning. “One killed the other for no discernible reason, and he never offered a clue as to his motive,” Grisham says in the author’s note at the end of the book.
Pete Banning is a war hero and landowner in Clanton, a small town in Mississippi. The year is 1946 and the Banning farm is one of the largest in the area, employing numerous Negroes who live in small houses on the grounds. Pete’s wife, Liza, had a nervous breakdown after Pete was reported missing during the war, and is being treated in a facility. Their two children are grown, Joel in law school, and Stella, attending a small all-girls college.
On a cold October morning, Pete follows his usual routine. Getting dressed (a painful exercise because of his war injuries), and walking to the pink house on the property where his sister, Florry lives. They enjoy omelets, corn cakes, and bacon. Their relationship is cordial, but not terribly affectionate. Pete bids Florry goodbye, then takes his truck and drives into town. His destination is the Methodist Church. He finds the Reverend Dexter Bell sitting behind his desk and shoots him dead. Pete tells Hop Purdue, who has been cleaning the church for 20 years, to call the sheriff.
Pete makes no effort to deny what he’s done. He’s taken into custody and charged with murder. No matter what question he’s asked, his response is the same: “I have nothing to say.” Pete’s lawyer, John Wilbanks, is frustrated beyond belief, unable to put together any defense for his client. In this section of the book, Grisham does what he does best, taking us inside a courtroom drama.
Pete’s actions reverberate throughout the community, shaking those who prayed for his return when he was reported as missing in action during battles in the Philippines. But Reverend Bell is well-liked, too, and Pete soon uses up any good will he once had amassed. The blowback is particularly hard on his family. Joel and Stella are devastated, and furious that Pete has told Florry to keep them away from Clanton.
The second part of the book takes us back to the war and what Pete endured. Grisham has obviously done his homework, recreating some of the most horrific treatment our troops endured at the hands of the Japanese. Pete survived the Bataan Death March characterized by severe physical abuse, including withholding food and water, and indiscriminate killings when a soldier failed to follow orders or was unable to continue to walk. With communication cut off between the American troops and the commanding officers, Pete and others on the march were presumed missing and probably dead. In reality, Pete and a few of his fellow soldiers escaped into the jungle and waged a campaign to kill Japanese soldiers. Pete’s action would win him many medals.
What got him through the war was the thought of his wife, Liza, waiting for him at home. So when he returns and his marriage goes sour, those around the couple assume something horrible happened. Liza’s breakdown is explained as a reaction to Pete being declared dead and then returning. The obvious explanation is that Liza had an affair with Bell and Pete could not accept her betrayal. The story is more complicated than that and Grisham teases it out until the end.
The Reckoning isn’t one of my favorite Grisham books and, judging from the reviews on Amazon, many others are disappointed in the book. I did learn a lot about what happened in the Philippines in World War II, but, at the same time, was tempted to flip through some pages that seemed repetitive.
We often wonder where writers get ideas for their books. Grisham carried this story around for a long time, but he might have continued to wonder about these two men without trying to find explanations for their motives.
Top photo of a Japanese prison by Bigstock.