The Summons, John Grisham

Dell, 2002, 373 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24107-3

For a writer often decried as a populist hack, John Grisham sure stretches his grasp a lot wider than some critics may be willing to acknowledge. After a few debut novels so similar in tone that they made Grisham a sitcom gag, readers were delighted to find a slightly different style following The Rainmaker: Novels that were as much characters studies as social critiques, coming at the “southern legal thriller” label from very different directions. Then came even looser works such as the straight-up family drama A Painted House or the holiday comedy Surviving Christmas. The Summons is another successful entry in Grisham’s post-Rainmaker renaissance, still a southern legal thriller, but with yet another emphasis.

It starts as law professor Ray Atlee receives a letter: His father, a well-known judge in a small rural Mississippi community, is dying and wants to see his two sons. Summoned to his childhood home, Ray makes two shocking discovery: First, that his father died before he could meet his sons a last time; second, that there are millions of dollars in cash hidden away in the house. Where does the money come from? And who else knows about it? As a comfortable academic, Ray doesn’t really need the money… but it sure would be handy. But it’s not simply a matter of picking up the money and depositing it at the nearest bank: as the threats pile up and the mystery of the money’s origin becomes more dangerous, Ray may have to do a lot of hard thinking in order to keep the money… or his life.

But there’s more to The Summons than just a thriller about a man and three million untraceable dollars in cash. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the novel (beyond its awesome page-turning appeal) is how it engages in a moral discussion about money and how it affects people. Ray Atlee is a decent man, but his first thought at the sight of millions of dollars is to hide and keep it all. Potentially complicating his actions are his doubts about the origins of the money: was his father part of a criminal ring? Was he bribed for a decision? Was he holding on to the money for a shadowy acquaintance? As Ray takes stock of his own life (divorced, comfortable, perhaps a bit lonely), the money -even left unspent- starts having an influence. For the reader, a lot of time is spend on the razor’s edge, wondering about Ray’s likability. Much like Scott B. Smith’s A Simple Plan (which is even acknowledged in Chapter 19), The Summons is an attempt to square off morality against or alongside money. Unlike Smith, however, Grisham isn’t so dark or so blunt to assume that money is evil: His thinking leads to a conclusion that twists without snapping believability and brings along an interesting moral reversal. Not since The Partner has Grisham played so well with expectations.

There are other treats here and there in The Summons, of course: Ray is an amateur pilot, and so we get a glimpse of life at ten thousand feet aboveground. Ray’s brother is what could be called a professional addict, with all the consequences and detox details that this implies. The portrait of the elder Atlee’s lingering influence in a small town is a nice piece of atmosphere that probably owes much to A Painted House. A late-book visit to a multimillionaire lawyer nicknamed “The King of Torts” oozes contempt.

As a thriller, The Summons isn’t Grisham’s best, but that’s unlikely to be much of a bother: it wouldn’t be a Grisham novel without the author’s usual terrific style. The Summons reads at two hundred pages an hour, propelled forward by an easy prose style, solid structure and a good bunch of characters.

Still, there is a bothersome aspect to the final revelations, which satisfy on a moral standpoint but leave a lot to be desired in terms of plausibility. Worse; a number of questions about the how of the deception are casually dismissed by a reference to two hoodlums conveniently kept off-stage. After the red herrings raised earlier in the book, it all seems a bit quick, a bit pat in order to bring along the last few pages on which Grisham wanted to end. A slight problem in a book otherwise so fun to read it’s hardly worth the trouble to complain.

What more satisfying is the constant appreciation of how Grisham is leveraging his strengths and limits into a series of highly enjoyable books. After his blockbuster success during the nineties, it’s good to see that Grisham is still stretching the envelope, still playing along with his chosen areas of expertise, still delivering good entertainment to fans and readers. The Summons may not be anything more than a good thriller, but it’s satisfying enough as it is.

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