A Time to Kill is John Grisham's first novel. In many ways you can tell because it is not written with his usual style that forms over his later novels.
The story begins when two drunken white men from the south rape a young black girl. After being returned to her family, the father, Carl Lee Hailey, instantly vows revenge - despite both men being put on trail for this crime. Well, when it's all said and done, Carl Lee shoots down both Pete Willard and Billy Ray Cobb as they're leaving the courtroom.
Carl Lee knows he killed them. His lawyer knows he killed them. The whole town knows he killed them. After all, he did it in the open and in full view of the town. Nonetheless, a young white lawyer, Jake Brigance (a family friend of the Hailey's), decides to take on this almost impossible case - and as a favor to the family, he does it on the cheap.
This is all accomplished within the first one hundred pages.
From this point on, John Grisham goes back and forth writing some story here, and describing the court system there, then some more story, then some more facts, and so on. Impressively, he writes in a way that is not very preachy - considering the controversial aspects of the story.
As far as the plot is concerned, it shows the ups and downs that Jake Brigance will go through in one of his first notable trials. At one point, Carl Lee even fires Jake and hires a big city lawyer. Of course, this is only a temporary setback. When the KKK burns down Jake's house, he realizes he is up to his head in this case - with no turning back.
A Time to Kill shows in detail how juries are chosen. We see how each side tries to out maneuver the other in choosing the perfect jury - "perfect" being a relative term. This is one of the many highlights that Grisham will teach us about the court system. And he does it without sacrificing the delicate story. [The novel The Runaway Jury goes into much more detail on jury selection.]
Towards the end of the novel, when the plot comes back into full focus - it is time for the verdict. You will be torn as to what will happen, as Grisham did a very good job of keeping us in suspense. The ending will not be spoiled here.
This novel - for Grisham at least - tends to be more descriptive than usual. While it describes much about the legal system, the plot occasionally gets lost in the detail. However, most of the detail is interesting enough where it can be overlooked. In fact, one can view this as a good thing. While most of his stories tends to have skeleton plots, this one does not fall into that category as it is "well padded".
Regarding the characters, A Time to Kill was an original novel for Grisham. There was none of his usual "suave" characters spewing out their overused clich�s. While Jake Brigance does fit the role of all future Grisham leads - as a young and good looking lawyer, there was one difference that separated him from the others: You could relate with him. (The same can be said even more so with Rudy Baylor of The Rainmaker). Jake is not written in an overly fictional way like, for example, Nicholas Easter of the Runaway Jury, or Mark Sway of The Client.
A Time to Kill is a story infused with emotion, as opposed to his others that are written to be a movie screenplay - making them seem "cold". While, the story here does at times becomes redundantly descriptive (just like that phrase), it really is not a hard read at all. After all, it still is a John Grisham novel. But a novel that we see he has put his greatest effort into writing.