Elderly Seth Hubbard of Clanton, Mississippi - suffering from cancer - commits suicide. Just before he takes his life, however, Seth writes a handwritten will that specifically cuts out his family and leaves almost all of his considerable estate to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang. In a letter mailed just before he died, Seth asks attorney Jake Brigance to fight to the death to preserve this new will - which he expects will be vigorously contested by his his son Herschel and daughter Ramona.
This starts a legal circus with a multitude of lawyers. While Jake argues on behalf of the estate, other attorneys represent Lettie (and her shiftless husband Simeon), Herschel, Herschel's kids, Ramona, and Ramona's kids. The legal fight over the will makes up the crux of the story. Every kind of attorney, from a black rights firebrand to a corporate hotshot to a disbarred alcoholic to earnest Jake Brigance makes an appearance, all of which inflames the community and creates a deep divide between local whites and blacks.
All sides decide to have a jury trial to determine if the handwritten will is legal and binding - that is, if Seth was of sound mind when he prepared the will and not unduly influenced by Lettie. If not, a previous will - which benefitted the family - would be enforced. While preparing for the trial one of the Hubbard family lawyers unearths information about Lettie's past and about Seth that he thinks will derail Lettie's claim. He cleverly (and unethically) maneuvers to hide the information from Jake until the trial is well under way. There's plenty of pleasurable suspense leading up to the revelation of this information.
The courtroom scenes are interesting (if a bit slow) with plenty of direct examination and cross-examination and intricate legal wrangling. The characters are well-written, compelling, and realistic - behaving true to their depicted personalities.
Before and during the trial a big question in everyone's mind (both the characters and the reader) is 'why did Seth do this'? Eventually, this question does seem to be answered. Still, I kept thinking 'Seth could just have given Lettie the money before he committed suicide and saved everyone a lot of bother.' Why he didn't do this is never satisfactorally answered (for me, anyway).
Overall, this is an enjoyable and informative legal thriller, recommended for fans of the genre.